Sean Baker directed the best movie of 2015 with Tangerine, and he may have just released the best of 2017.
The Florida Project, out Friday, was an upgrade from the iPhones Baker used to shoot Tangerine. Now, he has the budget to shoot in 35mm and to sign bigger stars. Willem Dafoe delivers one of the best performances of the year, while unknowns like Bria Vinaite and 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince are also remarkable.
The story revolves around Prince’s character Moonee, a modern-day little rascal. She lives with her mother, Halley (Vinaite), in room 323 of The Magic Castle, a motel just outside of Orlando’s Disney World.
Don’t get this residence confused with Disney’s Magic Kingdom, like some tourists do in the film. Magic Castle is a tacky, poverty-line motel. But to Moonnee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), it is a palace where they are royalty.
Through a series of lovely vignettes, we see the trio roam across their domain. They spit at cars, go into rooms they shouldn’t and scam strangers into giving them money for ice cream. The Florida Project is an ode to childhood innocence and imagination.
The cast is what makes the film sing. Particularly the kids are scene stealers. All of their adventures are brimming with life and surprise, just like the actors themselves.
Baker consistently gets great performances out of his cast. In 2015, he turned two unknown amateur actors, Mya Taylor and Kiki Kitana Rodriguez, into stars. Vibrant performances abound in his films.
Dafoe is the pinnacle of any performance in Baker’s catalog. He plays the sympathetic motel manager, Bobby, who acts not only as a father-figure for the kid, but takes care of everyone in the castle as well. He speaks for them, fights for them and even quarrels with them when needed. Everything he does is with loving intentions. It’s a delicate, yet stoic performance full of empathy.
This remarkable role fits inside the rainbow canvas created by cinematographer Alexis Zabe. Much like Spike Lee’s lively and pulsating Do the Right Thing, the entire film is candy-colored and sun soaked, immersing viewers in summertime. The palette of the movie is just as bright as its characters.
The film, however, isn’t all sunny and cheerful. It takes an inevitable dark turn at the halfway point. It goes on to deal with some of the material that has become typical in Baker’s work. He hasn’t veered away from the trashiness that worked so well for him in the past.
The Florida Project is just as hilariously profane as anything in his repertoire, and as equally beautiful. Baker applies the same kind of energy he had in Tangerine to it and it works wonderfully.
Continuing in the Tangerine theme, he even uses an iPhone-looking visual flourish at the end of the film. I’m not entirely sure if it worked, but it’s exciting to see a young auteur taking risks to make a great movie a masterpiece. Whether he succeeded here is up to the viewer.
One thing everyone can agree on is that with the release of this hilarious and heartbreaking barnburner, Oscar season has officially arrived.
You can contact CU Independent Arts writer Joseph Mason at firstname.lastname@example.org.