We’re Not Goin’ to Disney World: On Sean Baker’s ‘The Florida Project’

The latest from 'Tangerine' director Sean Baker is both joyful and melancholy, often at the same time.

The Florida Project opens with Kool and the Gang’s “Celebrate,” an anthem of joy – and not just that, but joy for its own sake. Here is a movie about people living in the worst kind of desperate poverty, for whom “living paycheck to paycheck” is aspiration because it means eventually there’s a paycheck, and yet it is not a depressing film. That’s partially because it’s primarily about children, and it’s filled with that very specific sound of high-energy kids yelling, playing, winding each other up. “You’re having too much fun,” a woman scolds them, as they’re cleaning off her car (which they covered in spit a few minuets earlier), “and it’s not supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be work.” Well, to hell with that; they’ll have their whole lives to work, and to not have enough fun.

Set in the summer in Florida, The Florida Project breezily captures the way that, when you’re a kid, that season can seem endless, like a dream you’ll never wake up from. The setting specifically is Orlando, just a little ways from Walt Disney World, and the cheap, stucco-heavy motels that constitute its world are given misleading names like “The Magic Castle” and “Futureland Inn,” so tourists who don’t know any better will book rooms there, thinking they just found a great deal. (When they arrive, they’re livid: “We’re not even on Disney property!”)

The machines – laundry and ice – are perpetually out of order, but it’s not Bobby the manager’s fault; he’s doing the best he can. He’s played by Willem Dafoe, in one of his finest performances (and that’s saying something), as a guy who puts up a stern front, but is full of warmth, good humor, and patience. “They’re good kids… most of the time,” he shrugs, of the children of his tenants, running around and causing trouble. He seems to remember, with some clarity, what it is to be that age.

And so does writer/director Sean Baker, which is lucky for the movie, as it focuses so squarely on the kids, specifically little Moonee (the wonderful Brooklynn Prince) and her friends – the parents are peripheral figures here, often out of frame and up to who knows what. (The moment when Baker clarifies why Moonee is taking so many long baths is a real whopper.) The adults get caught up in little tiffs and dramas, while the kids merely know their routines, and their momentary escapes from them. Sometimes it comes in the form of a quick influx of cash, resulting in spending sprees and restaurant meals; when that runs out, Moonee is reminded of their station: “This room costs money.” “Pepperoni costs money.” For her, poverty is both overwhelming, and not – after a while, it’s just a fact of life. (The logistics of motel living, and the particulars of “residency,” are part of their world, and thus of the movie’s; it’s this whole way of life that we just don’t see in most movies, which is sort of shameful.)

Things happen in The Florida Project, but it’s not plot-driven (or, at least, it’s so casual that it doesn’t seem to be). This is a film rooted in character and incident, and in fleeting images of casual beauty: Dafoe having a smoke as the timed night lights kick on is one, and its fanciful ending is another. As with his previous film Tangerine, Baker is very good at capturing the way people perform for each other, putting up fronts and taking little stands, but he sees through all of that to the commonalities beneath; this is a deeply humanist filmmaker, and he’s sympathetic to these characters, flaws and all. That humanity, and its coexistence with awareness of those flaws, renders its closing passages all the more heartbreaking; the moral complexity of its outcome is overwhelming. What an unexpectedly gutting movie this is.

“The Florida Project” is out today in limited release.