I was late to the game when it came to Sean Baker. I only saw his previous two films, Starlet and Tangerine, long after they had left theaters and the buzz had died down. When I finally caught them, I was impressed: here is an independent filmmaker in the classic tradition, creating strong characters, confident with his camera and his edits, assembling casts of talented unknowns, and exploring life on society's fringes, from porn stars to transgender prostitutes. His films are vibrant and true. Everything feels honest; nothing feels patronizing. Whatever Baker's trying to do, it works: Starlet is a fine film, and Tangerine is exceptional.
I didn't want to miss the boat on Baker's latest outing, so I caught The Florida Project as soon as it was released.
Baker adheres to his commitment to tell stories about America's untouchables, and this time he focuses on an Orlando, Florida motel that ostensibly caters to Disney World tourists but is mostly filled with poor long-term "guests" who pay by the week.
Willem Dafoe, by far the most famous actor to ever appear in a Sean Baker film, takes on a rare sympathetic role as Bobby, the motel's avuncular manager, who puts up with an endless array of headaches partly because it's his job and mostly because he gets a kick out of the weirdos under his roof. He's great, and every scene with him is a pleasure.
The Florida Project, however, is mostly about another character: Halley, a young mother played by first-time actress Bria Vinaite. She is living at the motel with her adorable/horrible 6-year-old daughter Moonee (a terrifyingly real Brooklynn Prince). Halley is a bona fide lost cause, living hand to mouth through various scams and short cons. Although she is, in her own way, loving and protective of her daughter, she is so irresponsible, deceitful, angry, and defensive that she becomes unbearable. Your tolerance, in all senses of the word, will be tested.
This is exactly the point of The Florida Project. Baker knows that poor people aren't always likable people, and that the indignities of poverty take a toll on one's character. Dafoe's Bobby has an innate sympathy for Halley and Moonee, no matter how awfully they behave towards him. The Florida Project dares us to find that same sympathy within ourselves. I admit that I failed the test: there were times when I wanted Halley to get run over by a truck. (Clearly, I'm not cut out to be a social worker.) If your heart is bigger than mine, this film will reward you with some truly lovely, funny and heartbreaking moments. Ultimately I liked it. I just don't want to sit through it again.