“The Florida Project,” writer-director Sean Baker’s follow-up to 2015’s “Tangerine,” is no less extraordinary, and no less defined by its sense of place. It’s set in a sweltering Kissimmee summer, in a Disney-adjacent cluster of dead-end, extended-stay fleabags with irony-rich names like Futureland and Magic Castle.
Surrounded by chintzy gift shops and roadside tourist traps, these garish motels are populated by single mothers, grifters, prostitutes and transients. Halley (Bria Vinaite) typifies all of these categories. A recently fired exotic dancer, she hustles for cash by hook or crook while raising her inquisitive 6-year-old, Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince).
Adopting a loose, roving, seemingly plotless approach to narrative, Baker captures Halley and Moonee’s interactions with those around them with an insatiable inquisitiveness and a keen eye for documentary detail. As with “Tangerine,” Baker draws kinetic, naturalistic performances from a cast of—with a couple of exceptions—nonprofessional and unknown actors.
His child actors, in particular, exhibit a lack of inhibitions and camera awareness so complete it’s almost miraculous. Much of the film is composed of Moonee and her friends—fellow bastard children, insolent and witty and perpetually unchaperoned—causing minor and major havoc to the world around them, from briefly disabling the Magic Castle’s power grid to setting fire to an abandoned building.
One of the few functioning adults with a significant speaking part is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the Magic Castle’s long-suffering manager, whose job consists of everything from painting the motel’s purple walls to admonishing a guest for sunbathing topless by the pool to forcefully removing the occasional pedophile. We learn that even Bobby, the most put-together character in the film, is personally and emotionally broken.
As Baker peels back layers of rambunctious humor, the movie’s subtle individual insights accumulate into a shattering whole, and a sense of innocence lost permeates this stirring and honest movie. As a treatise on a forgotten demo of the American experiment, “The Florida Project” is a social-problem film that doesn’t feel like one, that jettisons the preachiness and didacticism of lesser storytellers, culminating in an expression of suspense and anguish so true it will stick with you—probably forever.
“The Florida Project” is now playing at most area theaters in South Florida.