Filmmaking is not a poor man’s game. Even as digital cameras get cheaper, making a film worthy of release still requires dough to get off the ground, which means the folks who tell stories through cinema tend to come from backgrounds of privilege. That breeds movies aimed at middle- to upper-class people, about middle- to upper-class people. Even when independent filmmakers attempt to tell stories “authentic” to those millions of Americans who live below the poverty line, the filmmakers inevitably get it wrong. They too often focus on the tragedy of being broke, so the audience can proclaim, “Oh, those poor unfortunate souls!” — it can become a sort of poverty torture porn. News flash: Even those working paycheck to paycheck manage to have some fun, and I might venture to say that they’re maybe more creative with that fun because they have to make it without money.
Sean Baker is one of the few filmmakers working today who gets that it’s possible to find joy in small, difficult corners of the world. His film Tangerine, about two transwomen and their hilarious exploits across Los Angeles, doesn’t bow to typical expectations of media featuring transpeople, where their gender identity is always a tragedy and the focus of the story. Sure, Tangerine’s characters are poor, and one’s fresh out of jail. But the small pleasures of a delicious donut can give them the energy to power through any day. That Baker made that gem of a film with a hundred grand and an iPhone camera is fitting; the director merrily ragtags his way through film production much like his characters do through their lives. And with The Florida Project, his follow-up to Tangerine, Baker again grants both humanity and humor to his down-on-their-luck subjects, only maybe with a little bit of a bigger budget this time and a real camera.
Little Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her smack-talking, tatted young mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) in the Magic Kingdom Motel, walking distance from the throngs of crowds that flock to Disney World year-round. Moonee romps around the “neighborhood” (really just a motel-dotted track of interstate) with her little pals, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), getting into trouble wherever they can, while motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) plays the Mr. Wilson to their collective Dennis the Menace. The story doesn’t take the usual turns but is rather a slice of life that culminates with the outside world encroaching on the little fantasy Moonee and Halley have built. We know that Halley’s nights out drinking and her unemployment may not be building toward a happy ending, but this is a story seen through Moonee’s eyes. She believes that as long as you’re clever and cute enough, you can scheme your way out of anything.
It’s glorious fun watching Moonee and her buds face boredom and heat. They lean against a stucco wall mural in a parking lot with nothing at all to do. Eventually, Moonee bangs her head against the wall. Then again. Then Scooty does it, too. And then they’re passing the time banging their heads against the wall like little devils. In another scene, Baker frames Moonee and Scooty in close-up as they trade licks on a fast-melting soft-serve cone. Their eyes are taunting and fiendish. When a drip of ice cream hits the floor, the camera reveals Bobby there, staring at the kids, waiting for the moment he can kick them out of the motel lobby. “I said, ‘One drip, and you’re out!’ ” he yells. Dafoe’s character, the guy who’s too nice for his own good, becomes something of a father to these volatile children and Halley, resulting in some explosively funny scenes.
Through the rundown buildings where Moonee and her buds play, Baker captures the vibrancy of Florida. Wizard Gift Shop is shaped like a giant wizard. Orange World looks like a big, bright orange. And Twisted Treat is an ice cream stand resembling, you guessed it, a giant ice cream cone. This is a kitschy world built for tourists, but Moonee and her mom ain’t visitors. And Moonee, for all her churlishness, is a sophisticated thinker who seems to understand her station in life enough to adapt. She and her little buds aren’t simply precocious pranksters; they are full human beings with hopes and fears and coping mechanisms. Though Moonee’s story may not have a Hollywood happy ending when she’s grown and the world has been cruel, Baker has created an indomitable character who’s at least got a fighting chance.