Still Growing: On Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” (2017)

A stylized shot of the mother in Sean Baker's "The Florida Project" (2017) lying around, smoking a joint.

There is an anxiety, among Left Wing cineastes particularly, for a “proper” artistic depiction of the poor. Realism, of course, is key – but how grueling is too grueling? You can’t slip into so-called poverty porn, because to do that would be to rob the class you’re portraying of their dignity. However, conversely, to be too light or fanciful, winsome, even, would be to rob them of their hardships, which uniquely distinguishes them from the higher classes. This is not to even mention the deeper anxiety that interrogates the point of art at all in one’s political project(s), especially when it comes to fictional portrayals of the subaltern and such. “It’s all make-believe, at bottom,” the worry might be. “Does this aid us? And would even the most nuanced portrait of the dispossessed do anything to alleviate their lack?”

Maybe this is caricature, but I’ve noticed this anxiety slip into many of the reviews I’ve read for Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Many are positive (in that Baker avoids a misstep in either of the directions mentioned above) while some bemoan the lack of interiority in these characters’ lives, and even slam Baker for not making the mother, Halley, more empathetic. Others nitpick at its length, without elaboration, as well as its meandering, told-in-vignettes quality. And, of course, despite healthy acclaim, and a generous smattering of various festival/critic’s awards, the film still passed mostly under the radar – earning only a single nomination (Best Supporting Actor for Willem Dafoe’s Bobby) at that season’s Academy Awards.

But let’s avoid the glint of trophies (as well as political axes) and try to take the film for what it is, and not necessarily at face value, for there is much “interiority” suggested in what might seem like mere extroversion. Baker’s down-to-earth, understated approach to the subject matter might be aesthetically satisfying for many Leftists but it also asks for deeper viewer engagement, sans ideological blinders, to fill in the gaps that its narrative straightforwardly runs through. Are these characters given inner lives that flesh them out (in?) apart from their brashness, their clash with society’s surrounds, and the needs of the plot?

Speaking of which, it’s rather simple, as The Florida Project follows six-year-old Moonee and mom Halley, a former stripper turned cheap perfume-hawker and witless prostitute, as they subsist on meager funds and try to hold a room at the Magic Castle, a rundown motel in Kissimmee, Florida (not far from Walt Disney World Resort) managed by the hard-assed yet kind Bobby. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch are obviously aware of the class divide, and gesture to it constantly, with their most overt symbol (apart from the irony of the motel’s name) being a helicopter that launches from its pad near Moonee’s home, taking its more well-off customers out and away from the real world’s grime and the jeers of Moonee and co. The dominant theme is escapism, specifically that of children, who escape reality through diversion, sheer ignorance, and the curtailments of their grown-ups, who attempt to shield them from everyone else who isn’t a friend, including, sometimes, themselves.

Sean Baker’s M.O. is on full display here. Shot in grainy 35mm (courtesy of cinematographer Alexis Zabé), The Florida Project is certainly a different visual tack than his 2015 indie hit Tangerine (filmed entirely on an iPhone) but his preoccupation with society’s down-and-out is preserved, and told with the sort of casual, anecdotal ease of an in-control artist. It’s a rather brisk 111 minutes for this reason (plus, it’s got kids, whose undeniable scene-stealing charm buoys the runtime), which mystifies me as to why some critics complain about it being “overlong”. I wonder, if pressed, which scenes they’d recommend being cut, for story’s sake – or were they just bored and couldn’t be bothered to explicate? Finger-wag at Baker all you want, but one can’t confidently reprove his willingness to hew to reality, and sink his camera into the lived-in world of the class of people he is most fascinated by. Their environment is scanty yet as complex as any other group, comprised of upfront dangers and backend deals and the very simple reality of any community’s close-knit relationships, healthy and/or souring.

From the opening moments, Sean Baker makes sure to draw the viewer into this reality, as a potentially melodramatic conflict between two families over the main children’s messy behavior is leavened by the push-and-pull of the mothers’ frustration and empathy. Moonee is a Movie Kid hellraiser in the classic Our Gang or Dennis the Menace tradition, and seems to be the ringleader of her tiny friend group’s mischief-making. Her confidence and crassness (clearly taking after her mother) are so blunt that a critic who blusters forth the argument of No Interiority might miss the softer moments of Moonee being wise to the onset of adult tears; and, in a serene scene, the film harkens back, whether intentionally or not, to Betty Smith’s great A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, another story about a girl’s growing up in and through poverty, with Moonee and Jancey (a friend staying at another motel, Futureland) relaxing in the overhangs of a felled yet persevering willow. Her reason for treasuring the tree is a very simple yet metaphorically telling one. Also, watch her normally lively demeanor completely close in on itself when she is shunted off to the bathroom whenever Halley has sex with her clients. When a man accidentally intrudes and sees her playing in the bath, one gets the sense that Moonee is very much aware of what’s going on, but is too afraid to contemplate what the consequences might be. These moments, as well as Moonee’s rather precocious way of speaking, clearly point to a unique POV of the world that sets her apart from others.

As for Halley? Many critics are quick to acknowledge her irresponsibility, as well as the inevitability (and overall good) of the DCF taking Moonie away from her. But is writer Cassie da Costa – in a review for Film Comment that negatively contrasts The Florida Project with the Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What – correct in claiming that viewers are “invited to believe that [Halley and Moonee’s] lives are devoid of thoughts and motivations beyond hustle and pleasure, and so the movie ends up feeling like a millennial Instagram feed: cute, edgy, explosive, pithy, but shallow?” Well, perhaps “shallow” isn’t entirely wrongheaded, since the movie is not deep in the sense that Bergman or Tarkovsky or Malick movies are, but da Costa misses the moments mentioned above, where Moonee’s depths are subtly exhibited in very naturalistic, off-handed ways. Halley is given no introspective monologues about her dreams/desires, nor substantive dialogical reaction(s) to the goings-on of the film, but it’s incorrect to say she is devoid of interiority: she is clearly more than one-dimensional, as her crudity is offset by the very clear affection she has for Moonee and the other children, even taking the time to celebrate Jancey’s birthday by watching the Disney World fireworks.

But also watch the moment when, sensing the end of her legal guardianship is near, Halley takes Moonee to another hotel to clandestinely enjoy their fancy complimentary breakfast. Moonee is gorging on the goods, chatting away, and the camera suddenly cuts to a closeup of Halley’s nigh-impassive expression. I use “nigh” because one can read all sorts of emotions into her dead-eyed gaze: sadness, certainly; a measure of impetuosity, yes; perhaps even scorn/jealousy, as Halley, barely more mature than her own six-year-old daughter, wants to simultaneously protect Moonee from the realities of their squalor as well as relish in the sort of ignorant bliss such protection provides. She is too much of an adult to avoid the former, and too little of one to not feel the latter.

Plus, da Costa overlooks the fact that some characters (and real-world people, by extension) are simply not that deep. Halley and Moonee are extroverted personalities, who live off of impulse, and whose catch-as-catch-can mentalities afford small room for introspection – at least within the confines of this film. This is more true for Halley, of course, as Moonee’s subtleties are hinted at but dampened by behaviors learned from her mother and the environment of the Magic Castle. This might seem an inflammatory claim, but I’d argue this is true of people of any class, for levels of privilege/wealth/means do not necessarily guarantee personal emotional/mental/spiritual depth. It might not sit well with some critics or viewers to argue that Halley’s depths remain unplumbed simply because there isn’t much there to plumb, in the first place, but watch her very final scene again. Moonee has fled the clutches of the DCF officials who are taking her away, and when word reaches Halley that Moonee has run off, her overriding concern is not the safety of her child; instead, she lashes out at the DCF’s gall to claim she is unfit for parenthood when they’d let Moonee so easily slip their grasp. Her core is shallow, not to mention self-centered, ultimately, and this is well-rendered by Baker and first-time actress Bria Vinaite. The howling maw that the camera zeroes in on, here, should be clue enough regarding the character’s vacuousness.

Of course, to prioritize more-or-less superficial characters in one’s story does not absolve an artist of the responsibility to create a non-superficial story – I’d say that Sean Baker succeeds, overall, in doing so. The sense of lived-in realism is too faithfully produced, and characters given enough dimension, to say otherwise. Almost every character exudes, however minimally, a hint of backstory, from Bobby’s exasperated son to the twitchy pedophile slouching towards the impoverished community’s unmonitored children. Willem Dafoe rightfully earned a nomination for his portrayal of the virtuous motel manager, and his casting was a smart decision – his being the only name-actor in The Florida Project lends the role the authority it needs to wrangle these various personalities. Brooklynn Prince, as Moonee, is a revelation, and one of the best child actor performances I’ve ever seen. Vinaite’s casting is similar to Katie Jarvis’s in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, in its plucked-off-the-street fortuity, and although it’s not the best one of the bunch, her performance nonetheless benefits from its untrained naturalism.

I’d say that the film was justifiably praised, with the few criticisms it got being somewhat right-minded but devoid of reasoned elaboration. Perhaps it is too long – but, again, why? Or do the word-length-limits of these publications preclude the need for evidenced argument? It’s not the deepest, nor even most emotionally impactful of such Realist tales (it lacks the utter gut-punch of the great De Sica films) but in conflating the shallowness of the characters with, supposedly, the film’s, would be to miss some unapparent depths. And is the ending a misstep? I’d probably argue so, as its intended ambiguity doesn’t really stick: would two little girls really be able to avoid the authorities long enough to sneak into Disney World and zoom throughout the park willy-nilly? It’s a nice lyrical flight from the harsh truth of Moonee’s severance from Halley (a la that damned helicopter), but it’s a sudden, rather forced, break from the gritty realism The Florida Project trades in at every moment beforehand. Ideological persuasions aside, perhaps a character like Moonee is suited for a more subtly poetic farewell – closer to the gradual endurance of the tree she prizes in her fresh Floridian glade, as opposed to a literal Disneyfied swoop into fantasy’s freneticism.

* * *

If you enjoyed this review of Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project”, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a discussion with Norman Finkelstein and Palestinian refugees on their memories of war, a dissection of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Asako I & II” and “Drive My Car”, and a critique of James Cameron’s Terminator films.

More from Ezekiel Yu: Longing’s Transit: On Juho Kuosmanen’s “Compartment No. 6” (2021), The Girls, the Garden, the Pictures: On Carlos Saura’s “Cría Cuervos” (1976)Why Steve McQueen’s “Widows” (2018) Disappoints

Tagged with: