It's a neat trick in storytelling to have emotions come in late. Frontload your story with the crassness of everyday human interaction, then sucker punch the audience in the home stretch with the emotions drama usually has from the start. Comedies like Withnail and I or In the Loop do it. It mirrors how life is: Your routine predominates, but entropy leaks it away to reveal passion or despair.
Sean Baker's breakout hit Tangerine pulled this off well, sketching a comic, over-the-top Los Angeles skid row but slowly winding its way to the emotional concerns of its lead prostitutes and john. Baker's follow-up, The Florida Project, is longer and more pastel, with twice the scenes that veer into humorous non sequiturs about life in the cheap hotels next to Disney World. This time, it's a little long in the buildup. It keeps its heart off its sleeve almost all throughout.
Our gateways are impish six-year-olds who appear at first as the annoying kids of Magic Castle and Futureland, de facto housing projects originally for tourists. The kids are introduced spitting on a car from a balcony. When its owner threatens to come after them, they tell her, "Go ahead, you ratchet bitch. You are shit" and other phrases humorously beyond their years. They speak mostly in one-sentence jokes and behave like little con men, telling blatantly false sob stories for ice cream money, turning electrical breakers off for fun, and setting an abandoned building on fire. But slowly they become more likeable. Beleaguered apartment manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) shifts from responding to their infractions to being protective, letting their zest for life infect his own.
Both their joy and terror are imitations of little nightmare Moonee's (Brooklynn Prince) mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who never stops grifting, but can never pay the rent. Halley is the movie's central figure, resolute against the quieter notes of a more traditional struggling film mom. She sells thrift perfume in parking lots and steals Disney World passes from her johns. Unlike Tangerine's Sin-Dee, who constantly shot off one-liners and whose hard edges eventually showed softness, Halley's lust for life long ago curdled into self-rationalization. She encourages the kids' reign of terror.
Bobby also never quite makes the obvious dramatic step of covering for the family and endangering his job. Instead it blinds him. He sneers as he puts Halley's rent money under UV light and coldly films her vacated room to prevent her from establishing residency. The characters' place on the cooler end of the spectrum is a clue to the film's larger themes: People who can't make money get tossed aside, and those who endanger others' ability to obtain it are the highest-order threats. This keeps ostensibly good people like Bobby from reacting humanely.
- The kids of The Florida Project
The kids are like the free spirits of Daisies, Los Olvidados, Looney Tunes, or the credits suggest, Our Gang. They are less characters than just tiny factories of funny observation and unchecked will. They can only afford one ice cream cone and share it, then fight adults over cleaning up drops. They call asbestos "ghost poop" and free associate pet alligator names. Moonee wipes ketchup on her pillow and declares it her right.
This is a follow-up to a hit in every sense. It has a higher budget, a famous actor, and plays many of the same tricks to less effect. But those tricks are worthwhile. The universe the kids inhabit is tacky: They walk repeatedly through wide shot compositions of rundown tourist traps, one with a giant plastic wizard perched atop. The hotel they live in is purple.
The people are slightly less garish. Is it exploitation? The movie's wry in how it presents them. It certainly does not give them the level of dignity Moonlight did. Baker has a People of Walmart aesthetic. There's an element of "look at these crazy poor people and revel in their pluck." But there is a humanity, even with characters who keep their inner selves hidden and present only hard edges. Late in the story, when Halley gets a hug, she looks bewildered. When one of the kids reacts to the unfairness of her situation, it's a long, uncomfortable close-up of a crying child — and well-acted. Life does not present itself as a series of speeches but rather as humdrum interactions that reveal themselves piecemeal. Slowly, you learn about a person.