Some directors are virtuosos not just for their skill, but for how well they pull off the difficult subjects they choose to focus on, such as the lives of the impoverished. Often films about those with too few options are exploitative, either glamorizing the life of the poor in all its seemingly gritty glory, or serving as condescending pleas for help on behalf of saintly sufferers.
There are exceptions to the rule, such as Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Lee Daniels’s Precious, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Sean Baker took us into the world of a very different set of outcasts in his movie Tangerine, which followed a day in the life of two best friends who were also trans women prostitutes, one of whom was fresh out of prison and searching for the pimp and former lover who broke her heart.
Baker’s new film The Florida Project may have more conventional leads in the form of some very adorable kids, but that doesn’t mean he’s taking the easy way out, as their environment is anything but cute. The leader and focus is six-year-old Moonee (an incredible debut by Brooklynn Prince), who is spending her summer with a group of friends roaming the area around the Orlando hotel that is her home. As the movie follows them from one adventure to another, it becomes clear that their world is filled with people who are constantly on the verge of homelessness, struggling to keep benefits, jobs, and above all, make their weekly rent. It hardly helps when the hardships of daily existence go hand in hand with businesses that feature bright, colorful, happy slogans and signs geared toward getting their own cut of Disney’s billions, the corporate giant in their midst.
But as children are wont to do, Moonee and her cohort are able to make the sourest of lemons into lemonade. Her mindset is a living embodiment of the Disney ideals, where each day is one more chance for something magical to happen, even as unseen (by her at least) darkness looms.
However, the adults around her are very much aware of the encroaching shadows. Thankfully, they are mostly well-meaning, although ill-equipped to keep that darkness at bay. Hotel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe at most watchable) is clearly a man of compassion, which makes it more difficult for him to balance making a living himself and trying to assist the residents as best he can. Moonee’s rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) clearly loves and cares about her, but is unable to find or hold a job. For a while, she is able to provide a kind of tenuous stability, at least until she has a falling out with her best friend, whose love and support was the only constant, healthy relationship in her life. The resulting isolation is of the kind that can drive people to desperation under the best of circumstances, and Halley is soon driven to greater and more dangerous lengths to provide the most basic of resources for her and her daughter.
Baker’s film unfolds less like a drama and more like a documentary, with little plot as Moonee and her friends roam and find new ways to light up their days. Your heart will break, but it will also swell. Prince’s delivery, hilarity, and wit will bring tears, but also joy, as the tiny ball of charisma holds her own against Dafoe and anchors the film in what would otherwise be an unrelentingly bleak experience. The film’s only fault is that it runs a little long, especially near the end, but otherwise it’s an achingly beautiful portrait of people whose lives are constantly on the verge of disaster.