In The Florida Project, Sean Baker orchestrates a truly sublime rug-pull. The film is the equivalent of one of those 3-D hidden images from the 90s, where a weird, transfixing picture is revealed after staring for a long time at a Technicolor pattern. Baker draws you in with an upbeat, well observed docu-style movie, but all the while another story is taking place in the background, hidden in the details, the language, the stolen moments. The force of this, the film’s real narrative, can hardly be overstated.
The Florida Project centres on Moonee, a six-year-old rag-tag child in a bright, bustling social housing unit in Florida; we follow her as she runs around with her friends, getting into trouble, charmingly begging for money. The room she lives in with her young, brash mother is in a complex painted in lurid Technicolor purple; the child flits about in this dirty sort of fairlyand, between the apartment block and the waffle place, the ice-cream shack, this whole area circumscribed by roaring roads. This is her world, and we follow the infant right up close, Sean Baker’s camera running around with her and her friends. Brooklynn Prince plays Moonee with more energy than technical skill: the child throbs with rebellion and ideas.
Even as the children get up to their jinks, Baker makes sure to drive home the theme of money, which is a factor in seemingly every single interaction: these characters are poor, and much of their existence boils down to scraping a dollar here and there, stealing something, in order to get by or afford themselves a treat. Moonee’s mother, Halley, tries selling bargain perfume to tourists in nearby resorts, or at one point sells passes to a nearby fairground that she has somehow got hold of. The young girl is a witness to this hand to mouth existence, and to the ways her mother’s desperation and miserable existence lead her to swear and act up. Bobby, the kind, tired superintendent of the housing project—played by Willem Dafoe with a light, easy weariness—often comes into conflict with Halley, who is always behind with her rent money or causing havoc in the neighbourhood.
The film tells this story while training its eye on other residents, painting a brilliant, involving picture of a community, of its needs and wants, and of the way in particular that the children perceive and emulate the interactions between adults. There is a dreaminess at play as well, as in scenes where the kids escape the urban sprawl to visit cows in a field startlingly nearby, or when herons wander onto Dafoe’s property and he cheerfully ushers them off. There’s a flavour of unreality alongside the movie’s starker moments. As in Tangerine, Baker’s approach is so organic and heartfelt, that you could be forgiven for doubting his intellect; but he is also, while doing this, intelligently building a narrative out of so many details, sculpting a wrenching story out of these blocks, which builds to a heartstopping conclusion in the film’s last twenty minutes.
The film adds up to a disquieting look at modern America: it’s no coincidence that the film is set in Florida, a highly political and ambiguous state that voted for Donald Trump last year. Baker shows the poverty here, the tensions and the inertia; he reveals, too, the paucity of the American dream, offering up the proximity of Disneyworld as a sort of fake distraction from violence and misery. The bedraggled fairytale land of which Moonee has made herself the princess, filmed in candy colours with sprightly energy, is a tearing reminder of the frailty of these aspirations. Moonee’s tragedy is that fairytales don’t come true.