The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s deceptively sunny new indie, is a movie about a resourceful little girl named Moonnee (Brooklynn Prince) who lives in a castle. Sort of. It looks like a castle, anyway, albeit a giant, tacky, purple one, with bedbugs in one room and an ice machine that never works. To a 6-year-old girl reveling in the height of summer, what’s the difference? It’s all an adventure. Real castle or no, what’s here is just as grand and alive as the real thing.
This is by design. The Magic Castle Inn, where Moonnee lives with her mother, Halley, is a budget motel on Route 192 in Kissimmee, Florida. If it looks like an off-brand Disney attraction, that’s because it is. This stretch of highway sits squarely in the shadow of Disney’s Magic Kingdom—or no, not the shadow, because economically, it’s the backbone. This isn’t where the wealth is: It’s where the work is. It’s where you go to snatch up deals from the nearby Disney gifts outlet instead of shelling out full price for the same shit. Tourists sometimes unsuspectingly wind up here, which is why everything around aspirationally resembles a theme-park attraction. It could all be a speck on one of those zany illustrated maps: the gift shop named Gift Shop, the Twistee Treat ice cream stand that’s shaped like a ginormous, swirling cone.
In The Florida Project, this is all Moonnee’s domain. By day, she and her friends Scooty and Jancey make mischief of it all. They spit at cars, wander abandoned housing developments with misbegotten candy-colored exteriors, and run out into parking lots without looking both ways. They share treats with money they scrape up from tourists and tramp up and down Route 192 like they own it. They’re little rascals, essentially, a comparison that resonates because, like that ragtag crew, these are kids living through rough economic times. And, like Our Gang itself, The Florida Project is tonally playful while in fact being a wondrously sad piece of art.
That’s par for the course for Sean Baker. The last time we heard from him, in 2015, it was on the occasion of his groundbreaking project Tangerine, a film remembered both for starring two trans women of color, Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez, and for being entirely shot on an iPhone. Sounds like a stunt, but it mostly worked. The movie, a zany day in the life of these two colorful Angelenos, felt like it was ripped directly from the streets of Los Angeles, playing out with a homespun, amateurish glee. The writing, as in The Florida Project, is loose and natural. Baker has said he doesn’t like to impose a script on his actors but rather collaborates with the people he finds, and with the environment they’ve chosen.
That much remains the same with this new movie. But The Florida Project is bigger. It’s Baker’s biggest film to date, yet it still feels like a lovely pipsqueak of a feature, which goes to show you how far Baker has come. The movie was for the most part shot on lush 35 millimeter—the benefit of a meatier budget. It’s entirely worth it. Baker and his cinematographer, Alexis Zabe, make the most out of the Magic Castle’s candyland aesthetic, which, rather than ironically contrasting with the life conditions of the movie’s characters, miraculously works to make their world make sense. This is a film largely shot from the perspective of the kids, chasing them through their adventures and peering over their shoulders, as if to see through their eyes, when they’re confronted with things they don’t understand. It can’t help but feel, at times, like a fantasy. The place is a dump, but it’s also beautiful, and somehow, that’s for all the same reasons.
But it’s a fantasy subtly undercut by realities faced by the adults: When it’s not showing us this world from the kids’ point of view, it’s because we’re seeing things through the eyes of the adults taking care of them. Moonnee and her mom share a small room that runs $38 a night, situated right above their respective best friends, Scooty and his mom, and thinly divided from their other neighbors. The Magic Castle Inn is, as a rule, a place that prohibits permanent residents. It’s also a place that, given its need for tourist money, can’t make a show of the fact that its residents are largely down and out. Halley, who’s played with wonderful candor and an unpredictable attitude by newcomer Bria Vinaite, is a little bit of a child herself. She’s raising Moonnee alone and struggling to find a stable job—no one on the strip will hire her. So she gets over by hocking cosmetics to wary tourists staying at a nearby hotel. When that no longer works, she resorts to the only asset she has left.
This is an “It takes a village” kind of movie: Even as the characters we get to know remain relatively few, we never lose sight of Magic Castle as a shared space. Beautiful lateral tracking shots sail alongside the motel’s long white rows of banisters, passing by every door and taking it all in, as if by way of introduction. Everyone seems to know each other—and the man who knows them all the best, the manager Bobby (a sensational Willem Dafoe), works among them, keeping a watchful eye out for the kids, in particular. When a lecherous older man makes his way into the parking lot where the kids are playing outside, Bobby takes care of him. When Halley, forced to move out because she’s overstayed her term, cannot afford the price hikes at a nearby hotel, Bobby tries to take care of that, too.
Bobby is the caring eye the movie’s own gaze tries to embody. He’s got his own problems—a distant son, for one, and a tight budget. He’s the one who collects rent checks, and he occasionally has to come down a little hard on residents like Halley, who are always at risk of falling behind. But this is a movie in which authority doesn’t quite impose itself on people’s lives. It’s a movie about bad-ass children—I had more than one flashback to Bebe’s Kids—yet they’re impossible to be mad it. This is one reason, I take it, the film critic Richard Brody, of The New Yorker, complains that it’s “all too perfect, and all too easy.” He’s not wrong, but he might be missing what’s at stake. It’s a world so innocent, despite a clear opportunity to become otherwise, that you might find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop, for danger to creep in. But danger is of course always there, when you’re broke. The phrase Baker and others have used to describe the community of this movie is the “hidden homeless.” These aren’t people living on the streets, and yet they’re not so far from it, and they’re always at risk of landing there.
The Florida Project is a wonderful movie. It’s a reminder that a child’s-eye view necessitates doing more than crouching the camera low to see the world from the POV of someone 4 feet tall. That’s clearly a key ingredient. But you can’t just remake the world in images: You have to remake the world as an experience. That notion is a key to understanding the oddness of the movie’s final turn, when, all of a sudden, it becomes an outright fantasy seen, of course, from Moonnee’s point of view. I’ll let it surprise you as it did me—I’m still a little thrown by it. Maybe it doesn’t work. But it’s a lesson in how far Baker will go. It’s an adventure. And The Florida Project is a rare movie for understanding what that means.