Sean Baker’s most recent film is one of his most rarefied and resonant yet, taking the gorgeous ambience of his previous features to a new plane of succinct sublimity. Set in Kissimmee, Florida, it’s almost entirely devoid of anything resembling traditional narrative, instead focusing on the residents of a collection of motels along Route 192. In particular, it focuses on Moonee, a young girl played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince, and the various figures flitting in and out of her motel and the adjoining hotels – her mother, Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, the manager Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe, her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and a whole host of other characters who occupy her life at the motel. Some of them are more or less permanent, some of them appear periodically, and some of them only occur once in a while, creating a remarkably vivid view of the adult world from a childhood perspective – convulsively turbulent and yet somehow consistent and stable at the same time, reliable even in its radical unreliability.
With that kind of diffuse narrative structure, the backdrop is a character in itself, and while the ambit of The Florida Project may be much smaller than that of Tangerine – only a couple of blocks, really – the sense of space is even more expansive. In part, that’s because the area of Kissimmee in question is essentially a space set up for cars, and consists largely of motels, strip malls, petrol stations and other drive-in and drive-through amenities. Within that landscape, the pedestrian and peripatetic amblings of Moonee and Halley take on an otherworldly, fairytale quality, as they traverse one interstitial zone and segment of connective tissue after another, climbing and tumbling over spaces that were never designed for foot traffic. Yet it’s not just the man-made landscape, but the climate and atmosphere of this part of Florida that renders The Florida Project so porous in its aesthetic, as Baker outlines a zone that seems to confound all distinction between land, sky and water, as well as between daytime and nighttime hours, with the action gravitating towards a continuous dayglo twilight, perpetually poised on the lurid, unearthly cusp of a tropical storm. With helicopters continuously taking off and landing, strangers continually moving in and out of the hotel, and murky weather rolling in and out, the pervasive humidity and sticky tangibility gives every connective surface and structure an enormously visceral and volatile import, as the characters make their way from one transitional situation to the next.
These two elements of the film’s mise-en-scene – an automobile space inhabited largely by pedestrians, and the sticky tropical humidity of inland Florida – would be enough to suffuse the film with the ultra-porosity that has become such a hallmark of Baker’s style. On top of all this, however, the area in question also forms the main connective tissue between Disney World and the broader Kissimmee and Orlando sprawl, with Mooney and Halley’s ramblings occasionally taking them past Seven Dwarfs Lane to the very cusp of the resort district. While Disney World is never glimpsed until the final scene, it’s perpetually present as a condition of possibility and a perceptual horizon, with Baker resorting to increasingly futuristic – or retro-futuristic – imagery and architecture whenever Mooney and Halley grow close. Given that the film is named after Walt Disney’s working title for Disney World, it’s hard not to see in all this futuristic detritus an echo of his original plan for the theme park, which was to be quite distinct from Los Angeles’ Disney Land in its focus on futuristic experimental living – an innovation that ended up playing a much more modest role when Disney died before the theme park was constructed. As opposed to Disney World then, the “Florida Project” refers to Disney’s futuristic visions, whose detritus accumulates as Disney World grows closer, sending their residue out across the landscape and its infrastructure.
That dispersal of the future and past only enhances The Florida Project’s loose, promiscuous, elastic disregard for spatial thresholds, which translates into an absence of any stable or simple familial structures to situate Moonee and her childhood experiences. Like the other children of the film, she has only the most notional attachment to any parental figure, but she’s not exactly abandoned or alone either, so much as couched within a loose, collective, communal notion of parenthood that includes the landscape itself as much as any single figure within it. Not surprisingly, that produces a certain amount of danger, but also a unique sense of exuberance, and an extraordinary vision of how children look away from adults, in their true selves – not exactly “innocent,” but driven by an anarchic, curious and freewheeling taste for creative destruction, or destructive creation. In other words, it’s a vision of childhood wonder as driven by metamorphosis, and as a form of metamorphosis in itself, as Moonee and her friends burn down buildings, wheedle for free ice creams, litter the motel and stuff themselves sick, for the sake of seeing how drastically they can change, how things around them can change, and how they can change things around them. As with Tangerine, then, Baker’s central metaphor is of a continuous transitioning, and while transgender characters may form part of the ambience here rather than constituting protagonists in themselves, their very ability to blend into the background – and the lack of any explicit telegraphing of who is trans, and how – makes The Florida Project even more radically transitional, and transgender, in its sensibility and subjectivity.
Of course, it is only a matter of time before some kind of crisis creeps into the narrative, and it’s brought about, unsurprisingly, by Halley’s complications as a mother, which culminate with child protection services – the closest the film comes to anything resembling a conventional family structure – being brought in to restore Halley to normalcy. Yet the film never grows moralistic about parenthood, and never quite discards its summery, dayglo atmosphere, even if it does become more angular and hard-edged. Similarly, it never feels as if we – or Moonee – are gradually witnessing a “dark side” to adulthood, or experiencing a shocking or stunning disillusionment. Instead, the escalation of Halley’s issues simply testifies to the convulsive ability of Moonee – and children – to move very quickly from traumatically adult experiences back to obliviously childish ones, and then back again once more. That is, after all, how growth occurs, and the film is remarkably true to that process, using the diminishing returns of Disney futurity to evoke a growing twilight of childhood consciousness – and Baker is brilliant at capturing the twilight hour in all its different hues and shades (it’s the natural venue for his films), ballooning its hushed romance into a state of mind that all the characters seem to inhabit, a time of day that’s never all that far away.
It’s only natural, then, that Moonee should eventually flee child services by traversing every space we’ve seen so far in the film and finally arriving at Disney World. It feels just as right, though, that Baker’s footage now abruptly shifts from luminous iPhone cinematography to a grainier and grittier approach that mimics an older genre of Disney World home video, and testifies to this last part of the film being shot as covertly as Moonee herself eludes the attendants to run into the park and up Main Street. As the footage gradually deteriorates, the park’s fantasy of the future – and the film’s very idea of the future – recedes into the past, even as Baker’s gonzo approach speaks to some deep, primal desire to wrest some sense of the future back from Disney World itself – a future that may be covert, desperate and collective, and that may only exist in fugitive moments, but which imbues his camera with more and more urgency, more and more dynamism until, for a brief moment, we’re in it.