In a video released on the 7th of December 2015 on the Criterion Collection Youtube channel, Sean Baker holds a copy of Ken Loach’s masterpiece, Kez, and states, “I’m going to be making a film with kids soon, and this is one of the greatest films ever, so I’m definitely going to want to revisit this”. Baker’s research and awareness of the works of his predecessors permits him to defy W.C Fields’ age-old trope “Never work with kids or animals” and create something beautiful: An intimate stay with a poor, single mother and her kid in a Florida motel — Sean is an exemplary filmmaker, and has made one of the best films of the year.
So, my first port of call, casting. Newcomer Bria Vinaite plays Halley, a single mother, living scam-to-scam (I can’t say paycheck-to-paycheck; she doesn’t get one) and trick-to-trick out of a small room in a giant, purple motel. Vinaite’s performance perfectly balances the two characters Halley must play in order to survive: fun, sweet Mum (for her child) and hardened, unrelenting urban survivalist (for them both). Brooklynn Prince plays Moonee, Halley’s Daughter, and, with their performances supported by realistic dialogue, every time they’re on screen, both together and separately, we’re gifted profound slices of a life none of us would wish for ourselves. I’m talking about sending your own kid and her friends off to beg for food. I’m talking about teaching them inappropriate dance moves to modern music with lyrics kids shouldn’t be exposed to, or bonding over swimwear selfies. Their situation is different to mine, and I feel it’s one of my responsibilities as a relatively privileged person to be at least aware of people like Halley and Moonee so that one day I might act compassionately — slice-of-life films often have this effect.
I can’t describe much how good the performances are without entering into hyperbole, so please, please see them yourself. All the kids, Willem Dafoe (Bobby, the motel manager), and all the smaller parts are perfectly gritty, yet human. I think my favourite films are funny AND something: The Florida Project’s characters are humanised by how much excellent dialogue we get, with a lot of it being hilarious, so the film is funny AND dramatic, or funny AND poignant. The kids are always roaming around, going on adventures. They giggle playfully as they spit onto a neighbours car, they make fart noises with their hands under the stairs, they run to a nearby field and cower under a tree, “I didn’t think it would rain!”. Bobby’s strife with trying to keep his tourist destination motel descending into becoming a homeless shelter is oddly comedic too.
Calling the film beautiful would be incorrect in a lot of critic’s eyes because of where else that word is often used. Using beautiful, people think of Star Wars-like vistas. Here, it’s difficult to describe downtrodden motels and waffle houses as beautiful (if you were there, it would be the last word to come to mind), yet Baker makes The Florida Project a perfectly beautiful film. Using a squat, wide aspect ratio film, low angles, and a range of static and dynamic camera movements, Baker creates a world for these kids and makes them the biggest stars in it ie. fills the shots with their faces a lot. Shots outside are bright and vibrantly colourful (Orange world, purple motel, Balamory-esque derelict houses); it’s the kids play area, and they have the most fun here. Inside, they’re locked in the bathroom, or sat bored in the dark — inside is an adult space, you have to worry here about food and rent.
The combination of a relatively unknown cast with something to prove, the excellent plotline that builds and pays-off perfectly, and the gorgeous film design (location scouting, costumes, grading etc.) come together to create something that will be nominated for Oscars and recognised as a victory for independent filmmaking: from Tangerine, to here. This story has purpose, it’s entertainment coupled with activism.
Great job Sean. 9.2/10.