Director: Sean Baker
Writer: Sean Baker
Cinematographer: Alexis Zabe
Producer: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, and Shih-Ching Tsou
by Jon Cvack
I’ve yet to see Tangerine (2015), as it had come out just a year or so before Road to the Well (2016) was finished and I felt too competitive to want to watch, fearing that I’d be furious at myself for having failed to make an equally successful movie for the same budget. I heard great things, though heard even more from people who, hearing he shot it on iPhone, wanted to then shoot their own feature film on a iPhone minus ninety-nine thousand dollars. One line producing job I had in particular was for a guy who wanted to make a classic creature feature/comedy involving a hand that comes out of the toilet, involving an elaborate set and prop piece. I created the budget and even on his shoe string of seven grand or so (I forget the exact number), he didn’t understand the reason to have an AD on set, let alone half the other positions. He referred to Sean Baker and what he accomplished, failing to look up that, although shot on an iPhone, it was very much a serious production, bending the rules where they may. As of writing this, I have not seen the film, but given how incredible The Florida Project is, that will change very soon.
I had seen the previews for The Florida Project not knowing it was Sean Baker until the credits rolled. It looked like a quirky indie film, paired up with some Wes Anderson flavor and focusing on something a bit more serious. It opens at the purple Magic Kingdom motel, which aside from a few people passing through, is where a lot of the lower classes live. One of the first films that comes to mind is The Lower Depths or even The Iceman Cometh, focused on an often overlooked part of the world, and within America specifically. These are drug addicts and fuck ups, single mothers and those trying to get their lives together. It opens on three kids Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Scootie (Christopher Rivera), and Dicky (Aiden Malik), who are singing while kneeling against a purple wall, exiting frame, and Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” kicks in, playing over the credits; serving as the film’s lone accompanying track. The camera then follows the three kids as they run through the Magic Kingdom and over to the neighboring Futureland Motel where others live. They head up to the second floor and begin spitting loogies all over a woman’s car, who begins screaming at them, before they ran off, hunting them down and back to the Magic Kingdom where she talks to the building manager Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe) and finds the kids. Moonee's mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) provides one of the greatest performances I’ve seen in a long time by what seems to be someone who’s never acted before. Her best friend and Scooter’s mom Ashley (Mela Murder) offers another great performance, and so we see how this small community all functions.
They head back to the car to clean up their spit, convincing the woman’s daughter who’s similar in age to help and then recruit her as part of the group, taking her around to the area’s many tacky attractions - souvenir shops, and bizarre buildings; demonstrating the ways in which to work the system as a poor child.
Sean Baker excels at immersing us into a foreign environment, examining what borders on third world conditions within an area we often associate with pleasure and happiness. Having gone on a handful of vacations to Florida, the overall look felt familiar enough, even if I hadn’t gone to that exact area. Beneath the facade of joy is a somberness and feeling of struggle; that although some can afford to make the trip to Disney World, spend the mountains of money, and forget all of their troubles, others live paycheck to paycheck, unable to find work, and are just one emergency away from the streets. Perhaps not since Truffaut with Small Change (1976) or Hallstrom with My Life as a Dog (1985) has a filmmaker so finely balanced a look at adolescence with the pains of adulthood. We watch as Halley hangs by a thread, unable to find a job, falling further and further into darkness, with Moonee providing her one source of joy and pleasure, when not numbed by weed and booze.
There is no definitive plot to the movie, so much as providing a brief glimpse of the day to day lives of some of America’s forgotten citizens. While the film leans heavily on realism, Baker’s ability to integrate the tragic within a more colorful environment makes the film feel magical. Each scene with Moonee and her friends often involves an immoral act being committed against the backdrop of beautiful building or sunset, told through a child’s perspective who fails to grasp how serious it is. When they beg for money for ice cream the kids see it is as a friendly request, while the mother they ask is horrified. When Moonee goes to the restaurant with Halley and is allowed to order anything she wants, she finds herself in heaven, failing to understand the intensity of the situation. What made the scene with the pedophile so disturbing was the initial focus on the children dancing and playing along a creek, then introducing a creepy old man who wished to speak with them.
The list could continue and yet it was this exact format that made the film so exciting to watch, knowing that what was to come next was often only loosely connected to what came prior, and continued to demonstrate the bittersweet disparity between what a child perceives and the reality that is taking place. The film contains a glorious cast of characters, many of whom I assume were from the area, featuring everyone from an eighty year old woman who likes to tan nude to an assistant hotel manager that can’t assert himself. Everything in the film felt so real and true and that I couldn’t help but have my heart ache, knowing that this is actually exists and that it’s going to continue to exist, and for as much as I respect the people for making as much good as they can out of a bad situation, and for Sean Baker to turn his camera to a forgotten area, it still hurts to watch a world that’s doomed for most.
Sean Baker achieves what any perfect film does in connecting us with characters who seem entirely removed from our own worlds. It’s a beautiful story that has stuck with me for weeks, unlike anything I’ve seen out of American cinema for a very long time. There’s so much more to uncover that only repeated viewings would allow for me to discover the myriad of details and subtleties that add up to its perfection. I’ve never seen such a sad story produce such a strong desire for me to return. No matter how tragic it becomes, Baker preserves the tiniest glimmer of hope and joy in almost each and every scene; an accomplishment where I struggle to think of any other filmmaker who has ever produced the same result.
It’s one of the best films of 2017.
BELOW: Great Anatomy of a Scene from the New York Times
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