In praise of: The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker)

Some time back a friend asked me to name a favourite recent film from the U.S., the title escaped me (Tangerine) but I remembered how it looked (bathed in warm yellows and oranges, Los Angeles sunshine) and some scenes with the two women in a laundromat and at Donut Time. I really loved that film on pretty much every level: its emotional pitch and humanity, the performances, the humour, its aesthetic.

Two nights ago, I watched the follow-up from director Sean Baker, The Florida Project with another friend here in Paris. This friend couldn’t be more different to me in terms of background, but we were both touched by this film. As we walked to the métro in the cold, we spoke of its elisions (why didn’t the second female character report Halley for beating her so brutally, was it her last, parting gesture of kindness knowing that her former friend was going to lose her daughter, had she been beaten so often before that it no longer shocked her, she saw no point in seeking out justice and restitution for her suffering?)

When I came home I read more about the film and discovered some fine pieces of criticism: the first, by Anne Helen Petersen published (surprisingly) in Buzzfeed in November. This part struck me as I too could feel the influence of European film-making, in particular the loose crowd scenes at the hotel, the way the camera was positioned then and the preference for keeping it low-key and allusive, elusive.        

The fact that Baker couldn’t afford to fly in actors meant that most of the cast was sourced locally, as Petersen writes: ‘The characters feel deeply Floridian: They know the cadences of speech, but also the particular gait required in Florida heat; they have the listlessness down, the early crinkles around the eyes from squinting too much into the sun.’

Decisions like these link Baker with the neorealist filmmakers of the mid-20th century. Starting in Italy with De Sica, Antonioni, and Fellini, before spreading all over Europe, those directors paired bare-bones production style (shooting on location, with non-actors, with small budgets) with a focus on the everyday realities of post–World War II working-class life.

These films — Bicycle Thieves, most famously, but also the work of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach in Britain, both of whom Baker lists as major influences — ran counter to the narrative logic of Hollywood. Their actors weren’t polished; their plots didn’t follow the three-act structure. But along with films coming out of France, Japan, Russia, and elsewhere, they provided an alternative to the standards of storytelling that had been cauterized by Hollywood. As Baker made his way through the art-film canon in the ’90s, he consumed and internalized all of it: the meandering narrative, the scenes that seem to lead nowhere but linger in unaccountable beauty. He’s famous among his friends, he told me, for always preferring a 10-minute tracking shot in which nothing happens over even a moment of exposition.

I also liked this piece by David Sims from The Atlantic that focuses in on the scene where the Willem Dafoe character, Bobby, shoos away some birds.   

Sims writes:

'This has been Bobby’s role for the whole movie: He’s a protector. He’s kind and dad-jokey, softly spoken but authoritative as he takes care of a place that looks hellish at first glance. Bobby, though, is uninterested in accolades and is largely on the receiving end of verbal abuse from customers like Halley. In depicting Moonee and Halley’s life on the margins, Baker could have dialed up the gritty depravity just to drive home the film’s larger societal message. But The Florida Project is all the more powerful for portraying tenderness and optimism where one might not have expected it.

Bobby isn’t a hero. He’s just a person trying to make the lives of others a little easier, whether it’s Moonee and Halley (whom he indulges despite her increasingly difficult behavior) or the passing ibises, who serve as a reminder of the weird magical fantasyland that Florida still is. In the end, Bobby’s help only means so much—the end of the film sees him trying, and failing, to comfort Moonee as case workers from the Department of Children and Families attempt to take her away. It’s his effort that’s moving, not the result. The world Baker is showing viewers is mostly miserable, which makes the moments of compassion matter that much more.

Right after Bobby’s confrontation with the birds, the film cuts to Moonee and Halley sneaking into a fancier hotel and treating themselves to a big buffet breakfast, pretending to be guests to get a free meal. Moonee’s face fills the frame as she names all the foods she’s eating and narrates her delight as Halley looks on smiling. It’s an act of kindness from a mother who, in many ways, has failed her child. She might be scamming the hotel, but Baker still doesn’t want to overlook the goodness that drove her actions. That’s why The Florida Project is so transcendent, and one of the very best films of the year, despite its bleak subject matter: It’s a movie that can find something bright in the darkest corners, and can locate deep humanity even in a jokey, throwaway conversation with a flock of birds.'

Interview with Baker and PBS/Newshour report on the film: