Chances are, unless you’re the dedicated movie-buff with a keen interest in independent films and a taste for visiting film festivals, you haven’t seen director Sean Baker’s previous work, Tangerine. The 2015 comedy-drama was remarkable for several reasons, though the most remarkable thing of all was the way in which the film was shot. The director used 3 iPhones, cropped the images to look widescreen, and released a film with a color palette that made Los Angeles look practically incandescent.
With Baker’s new film. The Florida Project, the director has turned to a more conventional 35mm camera shoot, but his color design is no less glorious. He’s substituted the glowing reds and the electric fluorescent dark blues of LA to the eye-catching pastels of Orlando, and the results are striking. Everything, from the paint on the walls of the motels, the rainbow across the sky after a storm, the clothes the characters wear, the towels that hang over the motel handrails, even the green of the grass, all seem to glow with an unnatural, spectral-colored beauty that suggests we could be nowhere else other than Florida.
The title comes from the name given to Orlando’s Disney World when the plans for the magical theme park were originally in development. For Baker’s film, the title has intended irony. These characters live and play in Orlando, but it’s a parallel, desperate world to the hopes, dreams and fantasies of the one in the parks. These people with their children live in extended-stay motels where establishing residency is against the rules, but with some tweaking of what is and what is not allowed, as long as the weekly rent is paid, they remain. And they’re there for one simple reason: they can’t afford to live anywhere else.
That Disney parallel comes from the names of the lavender painted, off-the highway, low-rent motels, such as The Magic Castle or the Future Land Inn, where the principle characters live. Nearby business establishments with their garish, often crudely designed fronts, such as a fruit stand called Orange World, or a place that sells tourist trinkets and tickets to the theme parks, known as Gift World, all add to the setting that, despite the attractive color palette, we’re really in the Floridian projects. At one early point, a long shot shows an elderly man moving from one side of the screen to the other, passing in front of Orange World. It looks as though he might be on his personal theme park ride, but he’s sitting in his electronically powered wheelchair; it’s the only way he can get about.
Told in an anecdotal style, often in trivialities, the film revolves around a heavily tattooed young mother called Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her boisterous, playful daughter, Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). Moonee is an undisciplined brat, but at just six years, her bratty behavior comes more from irresponsible parenting than anything else. She doesn’t know any better, and much of what she says is the result of what she’s heard adults say, particularly her foul-mouthed mother.
When we first meet Moonee, she’s playing with friends and causing mischief. It’s the summer break, and the kids have nothing better to do than to spit from the second floor of a motel onto the parked cars below. When a neighbor steps out and notices the saliva splayed across both the windshield and the hood of her vehicle, she looks up and scolds the kids. Rather than run, Moonee leads her two friends in a verbal assault, with language that is startling, calling the woman a bitch, telling her where to go, and laughing.
In her own Magic Castle motel, Moonee knows the story of most who live there. As she passes the doors of several residents she’ll tell a new young play friend that, “This man gets arrested a lot,” or “This woman thinks she’s married to Jesus.” But her mischievous pranks often get dangerously out of hand, particularly when she pulls the main power switch to The Magic Castle, plunging the whole motel into darkness, and worse, vandalizes then sets a match to an abandoned pillow in the fireplace of a nearby, derelict building that sets the whole place up in flames.
Moonee’s mother may be in her twenties, but like her daughter, Halley is still a child. And she’s lazy, preferring to hang out with her daughter for most of the day, lying on the bed, watching TV. When neighbors complain of Moonee’s behavior, Halley pretends to admonish her six year-old, but in reality, she does nothing. Though we never see the mother doing drugs, with her reddening, sleepy eyes, and her pale, somewhat gaunt features, Halley has the look of a woman perpetually on the down side of a high.
The future for mother and daughter will never be good, and that’s something of which you’ll be aware from practically the opening moment. To talk of the ambiguous though abrupt end would be close to revealing a plot-spoiler, though you can be sure what you’ll see will inspire conversation for the drive home.
Though continually engaging with rarely a false move from any of the cast, one thing the film miscalculates in its character-driven style is the manner in which it asks us to sympathize with its two central players. You get the feeling the film wants us to feel pity and understanding when it comes to the desperate plight in which Halley finds herself, yet out of sheer indolence, ignorance, and general inertia, the mother continually sabotages her life, and it’s both painful and annoying to watch. The woman is not one to like.
As an adult, at this point, Halley should be making an effort – her more responsible neighbors are, at least, trying – but Halley has no interest, even when those around her, like Willem Dafoe’s excellent portrayal of Bobby, the gruff but likable motel manager, attempt to help and even protect. And as for young Moonee, under any normal circumstances, her playful though aggressively belligerent ways would be considered far more objectionable with less room for forgiveness if she wasn’t played by a performer who didn’t look so undeniably cute. When Moonee shouts with an insulting tone, “Give us a break, lady!” it’s only because it’s something she’s heard her mother repeatedly declare. At such a young age, early intervention should help. But for her mother, even though she is only in her twenties, with the things she says, the actions she takes, and her overall vindictiveness when she doesn’t get her way, which is most of the time, she may already be a lost cause.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 115 Minutes Overall rating: 7 (out of 10)