Perhaps the quest to capture cinematic verisimilitude is accomplished best by director Sean Baker in his 2017 film “The Florida Project,” a masterpiece that spotlights marginalized subcultures with an intimate, searching spirit and fascination.
Although it lacks a concrete storyline, “The Florida Project” is neither maudlin nor sentimental, defying the absence of plot through execution. It is an all-too-common story of a single mother and her daughter hanging on the edge of the social ladder.
Yet the honesty of Baker’s storytelling, which carefully conveys the truths of his characters’ daily lives, makes for a film both simple and profound.
The cast is led by Brooklynn Prince’s character, Moonee. The six-year-old girl is a precocious, pint-sized human whirlwind of mischief.
With her gaggle of friends, she wreaks havoc with rapturous abandon — triggering a power outage and spilling ice cream, among many other devious licks. Her home — or, for that matter, her kingdom — is the Magic Castle, a shabby, three-story motel that sprawls across the shadow of a nearby mecca: Disney World.
Magic Castle, with its bright purple exteriors and tacky white banisters, is a knockoff Disney Inn whose absurd architecture appears to be lifted from the pages of a fairytale.
This stretch of highway is, perhaps, the unseen Florida — a largely downtrodden place where dreamers, parents and stragglers rent rooms from manager Bobby (William Dafoe), whose tough exterior veils a deep reservoir of kindness. The Magic Castle, a place flitting with dashed hopes, breeds toughness and resignation in those that call it home.
Although most filmmakers would steer clear of this real-life location, Baker was first drawn to the setting according to the Guardian. Stories of Florida’s hidden homeless inspired Baker’s chromatic portrait of childhood in the summer suburbs.
“All the news stories focused on the juxtaposition we ended up focusing on — children growing up in budget motels just outside the place we consider the happiest and the most magical place on earth for children,” Baker told Screen Daily. “I saw the potential in a narrative fiction film taking place in that world.”
Baker’s social-realist films avoid stumbling into the trap of romanticizing poverty. Scenes of impoverishment, depression, and deprivation seek to mirror the realities of real citizens who reside at the motel.
A complex character study arises Moonee’s 22-year-old mother, Halley, a rebellious, blue-haired woman who appears more of a sibling to Moonee than parental figure. As money grows scarce, her ventures grow riskier.
She teaches Moonee the art of hustling by heckling passersby into buying wholesale perfume. Her defiance often flares into spiteful rage; she is a lost soul who has long decided there’s no point in being kind or gracious in a world completely set against you.
There is a tension between concrete realism and fantasy awash in the film’s bright Floridian color palettes. Moonee’s young, innocent eyes, through which viewers see her sun-scorched world, is slathered with sherbet hues and strange beauty.
Yet suspicion and melancholy lurk behind her eyes, emerging during moments of her premature witness to the harsh realities of her surroundings.
The ending is near impossible to predict and vaunts the project into astonishing symbolism. With it, the whole notion of the American dream and its consumerist underpinnings is turned on its head. Baker’s films certainly hold a quasi-documental feel to them, with cinematographer Alexis Zabe’s wide, sun-drenched shots and the incredibly natural acting of the entire ensemble.
One would think it possible to step right into the screen and join the ruckus of the children — all of which makes for a film that is anything but manufactured entertainment.