Following his breakout hit Tangerine, the next project for director Sean Baker was always going to attract plenty of interest and, understandably, much anticipation. Filmed on an iPhone (as much a gimmick as anything I would think), Tangerine explored the humour and hardship of those living on the margins of mainstream society in Los Angeles and with The Florida Project, Baker mines similar territory, although this time the setting is Orlando, Florida. As was the case with Tangerine, Baker has uses largely unknown performers in all the major roles, with the exception of Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the compassionate, yet conflicted, manager of a tourist strip motel that is a far cry from the glitzy, feel good narrative of the nearby Disneyworld theme park that casts its mocking shadow over the lives of the motley bunch for whom the Magic Castle Motel is home.
The story revolves around the daily adventures of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her small group of friends as they spend each day exploring their domain, which includes neighbouring bushland, abandoned resorts and the endless array of tacky tourist-tempting souvenir shops and strip malls that line the highway. Moonee lives at the Magic Castle with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), whose lack of oversight enables Moonee to pretty much do as she pleases, much of which results in considerable frustration for Bobby and other residents. Halley spends her days watching television or hawking cheap perfumes to gullible tourists and whilst Baker doesn’t offer a lot with regard to the circumstances that brought her, or any of the others for that matter, to be living in the motel, Halley doesn’t exactly seem overly motivated to bring about any real change in her circumstances. Of course, the issue that Baker is tackling here is how local residents, and particularly those already living on the margins, are often left behind in the name of progress, with tourist infrastructure a greater priority than affordable housing.
There is much amusement in Moonee’s antics which are, by and large, reasonably harmless, although there will be those who find some of her behaviours problematic in someone so young, but to a large extent she is simply a product of the circumstances in which she finds herself. Her tough, bossy exterior shields a vulnerability that she keeps in check for the most part and young Prince is remarkably authentic as a six-year-old who is largely oblivious to the potential dangers to which she exposes herself; she is just trying to find an escape from the dreary existence of life in a two-bit motel. Although Prince and the rest of the unknown performers are all exceptional, it is Dafoe as Bobby who makes the film soar.
Bobby is sympathetic to the circumstances of those residing at the Magic Castle, acting as a father-figure of sorts to the kids and trying to balance his compassion with his responsibilities to the motel owners. He advocates for his tenants and, even when he is fighting with them, he does so with their best interests at heart. If he is angry at Halley for being late with her rent, it is only because he doesn’t want to see her and Moonee evicted. It is a delicate, yet stoic performance that is full of empathy. Forget Spiderman and the myriad other spandex-wearing Marvel types, Bobby is the type of hero we need to see more often on screen; somebody who cares about others and does everything in his power to make their lives a little bit better than they might otherwise be, even if his efforts often go unappreciated. The sun-drenched candy-coloured palette doesn’t hide the darker themes that Baker is exploring and, whilst he might not get any offers from the Disney Corporation any time soon, this is a funny, frightening, compassionate and ethical film that is neither condescending nor cavalier in its examination of poverty and, perhaps most impressively, Baker avoids delivering judgment on the (types of) people who populate the story.