“The Florida Project” is the new movie from writer-director Sean Baker, who staked his claim two years ago with “Tangerine,” an indie feature he shot entirely with an iPhone camera. It told the story of a transgender prostitute and several other L.A. drama-queen wastrels, and the small miracle of the movie is that it wasn’t just visually accomplished. Despite the ultra-low-rent technology (or, actually, because of it), it was visually astonishing, its images electrified by a mysteriously expressive herky-jerky incandescence. The whole turbulent magic-hour look of “Tangerine” busted out with more life and atmosphere than almost anything an expensive movie camera could buy you.
I was avid with curiosity to see the opening shots of “The Florida Project,” because I wanted to know if Baker would be using the same technique, or maybe something just as innovative. The film opens with an image of two children seated against a rough plaster wall, and as it turns out it’s a totally “normal” shot: crisp, clear, and color-corrected, filmed with a conventional camera. Baker, riding on the success of “Tangerine,” has left the iPhone cam behind him. But the spirit of tingly visual and moral adventure that animated “Tangerine” — its whole absorption in the beauty of reality — is very much in play in “The Florida Project.” It’s a worthy and accomplished follow-up, authentic and movingly told, and it should build on the audience that Baker found with “Tangerine.”
This one, too, discovers its story in the desperation of people who live on the dysfunctional fringes. Its central characters are Halley (Bria Vinaite), a surly, combative young viper with her hair dyed fiberglass blue, a silver ball piercing the middle of her lower lip, and rose tattoos that seem to burst right up from her chest, and her six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who has been raised to mirror her mother’s attitude of haughty hostility and selfishness. Moonee comes on like a pint-size ballbuster, but she’s really just a sweet kid doing whatever it takes to please her mom.
Halley and Moonee live in the Magic Castle, a three-story motel on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, that’s painted in the colors of nearby Disney World. The walls are lavender, the doors to the rooms are dark purple, and the whole place looks clean and bright and spangly, considering that it’s basically a flophouse for people who can’t afford to live anywhere else. The rooms cost $38 a night (which, by the month, still isn’t all that cheap), and Halley struggles each week to come up with the rent, since she can’t seem to find herself a straight job and appears to be the world’s laziest stripper. Mostly, she hangs around, treating her daughter as a fellow delinquent, because she’s basically a child herself. The two go out to restaurants and order gluttonous buffets of waffles and eggs and bacon. They go shopping for plastic jewelry that Halley seems to like as much as a kid would. They have burping contests and give the finger to whoever’s around.
Halley, by any respectable standard, is a terrible mother, yet in one way she’s a good mother: She gives Moonee a great deal of smiling love. You can see in Moonee, raised by a sexpot rebel who appears to be a bit of a raging sociopath, the early stages of a restless, acting-out personality, yet she’s vibrant — there’s a charisma to the way that as a child, she doesn’t hold back. Brooklynn Prince is a real find, totally expressive but never too cute, and Bria Vinaite, the 23-year-old actress who plays Halley, has the snarling princess-gone-to-hell erotic vivacity that Riley Keough had in “American Honey.” “The Florida Project” at times suggests a more staid offshoot of that film, as if it were about just one of the characters, who had gone off and had a child but was still hustling — and fighting — the world.
Baker, who co-wrote the film with Chris Bergoch (his co-writer on “Tangerine”), sets “The Florida Project” mostly in and around the motel, finding drama in its nooks and crannies, and what happens isn’t burdened by false arcs. But it also lacks the catchiness of arcs. As a filmmaker, Baker is a graceful neorealist voyeur who thrives on improvisation, and his storytelling, in “The Florida Project,” is mostly just a series of anecdotes. But that turns out to be enough.
The movie takes place over the course of a summer, when Moonee has nothing to do but drift around with the other local kids, like her pal Scooty (Christopher Rivera). It’s no big surprise when she gets into trouble; that, in essence, is what she’s been raised to do. Yet the movie has a sense of adventure. It’s rooted in that transcendent moment of childhood where almost anything you encounter — a field of weeds, an abandoned house — is tinged with wonder.
For the first time, Baker uses a name actor, and it pays off beautifully. Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the manager of the motel, whose job requires him to be a handyman, an office grind, a den mother, a father figure, and a law enforcer all at the same time. Dafoe plays him as a gruff hardhead who is also a nice guy. He’s got an ongoing skirmish with Halley, which is mostly about the rent money, but then she runs so low on cash that she starts to cross over into hooking, which renders her an outcast even inside this motel of outcasts. She’s also a scammer and a thief, but the more indefensible her behavior, the more “The Florida Project” turn into a true tale of the lower depths.
What will happen to Moonee? The two can’t just go on like this, and Halley’s increasing flirtation with criminality builds toward an inevitable explosion — which, when it arrives, is shocking. Yet the film’s poignancy derives from a simple fact: Halley may be a sick-puppy rebel, but she’s the only mother that Moonee has. The movie ends on a note of lyrical heartbreak, set at Disney World, and unless I’m mistaken, to be able to shoot it Baker went back to his guerrilla iPhone. The kingdom of fantasy never looked so desperately real.