The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017)
Having broken up my Cali tour (a road trip that was leading me and my crew directly down the coast towards LA) with what I thought would be an appropriate (re-)viewing of the flamboyantly queer Tangerine, an amusing and poignant slice of street life set in that very same City of Angels where fate (and my credit card) was leading, a re-watch of the film reminded me how while director Sean Baker might have approached it with all the right ingredients to grant him a shiny star amongst the Sundance latte crowd (exactly the kind of proud-of-themselves audience I mostly despise at this point), somehow, despite all that, the wonderfully engaging performances, led by the two trans leads, as well as Baker’s fun direction, somehow mostly – mostly – won me over anyway, so I decided to follow it up, once arrived in the city (okay, to be fair, I splurged for a place in the Hollywood Hills, looking down upon the street riff-raff below… but I did drive through the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, where most of Tangerine‘s action takes place!) with his follow-up, but just for the fun of it rather than for anything related to my travel (considering, as the title bares out, it takes place on the opposite coast in an almost entirely culturally-bereft retirement-home state).
With the cachet received from Tangerine, Baker was able to move beyond the no-budget ‘cell phone camera’ aesthetic and shoot full-on (quite gorgeous) 35mm and bring along a recognizable face in the form of indie-fave Willem Dafoe as part of the ensemble cast. Moving from one ignored class of folk in LA to the struggling impoverished denizens of a run-down hotel (named the Magic Castle) just near the out-of-reach illusions of Disney World (with the specter of Disney’s actual Magic Castle hovering over the film like a reminder of all the dreams these people will never reach), Baker ups his cinematic prowess (perhaps somewhat similar to how Greg Araki did with his beautifully crafted story of lost teenage life in middle America, Mysterious Skin) and proves Tangerine wasn’t a fluke.
And while Dafoe is as engaging as usual as the poor put-upon, yet still caring, manager of the hotel, fighting a losing battle in trying to maintain some kind of order amongst the unruly and wildly irresponsible families living there, to keep out the drugs and the sex work trade the occupants engage in to help make rent, as well as kick out the odd pedophile here and there looking to prey upon the generally unsupervised rambunctious children hanging about causing trouble, the real breakout performances are by newcomers Bria Vinaite as the dysfunctional single-mom Halley and the startling six year old Brooklynn Prince as Halley’s troublemaking daughter, Moonee, constantly acting out, yet full of life, while undoubtedly fated to a troubled future at best.
Vinaite inhabits her slightly dangerous wild child role in a perfectly authentic go-for-broke style, with her Lithuanian-born voice inflections creating an impression of lost Americana, referencing not just illiteracy, but an inability to articulate words at all properly. And Prince is just the child wunderkind that critics and audiences love to celebrate (again, Baker certainly has his finger on the pulse of how to keep those latte loving Angelica Films folks applauding), with a performance filled with a precociousness, yet balanced by a sense of reality… the tragedy we see coming is palpable.
While I still have the same feeling that I had coming out of The Florida Project that I did from Tangerine, of a director setting a course (consciously or otherwise) for festival audience approval (Baker needs to watch more Staten Island-set Buddy Giovinazzo films to see what uncompromising in a film is all about), it’s hard not to admire and appreciate the level of storytelling, and the colorful characters he finds inhabiting the downtrodden, ignored milieus where he sets down his cinematic flag; all within expanding pockets of humanity, that are growing largely the norm, with a political system in place over the last decade that’s worked hard to siphon every bit of wealth of the country upstream to the elites and away from the masses (revved into overdrive over the last year and a half of economically back-breaking lockdowns that has destroyed so many lives and last remaining small businesses, forcing people out of any thoughts of entrepreneurial or independent life, and instead kicked them onto the Amazon/Walmart/Costco minimum-wage no-benefits dole).