Sean Baker’s The Florida Project opens on two kids playing outside the Magic Castle, a dingy purple motel in Orlando, Florida. This $35-dollar a night motel, complete with broken ice machines and dead fish in the pool, might be a few miles from the real Magic Kingdom, but flights of imagination are in no short supply here. In his follow-up to Tangerine, Baker follows the day-to-day adventures of a young girl and her ragtag group of friends in a magnificent look at the freewheeling wonder of childhood.

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the brash and spirited six-year-old from the opening, lives at the Magic Castle with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Recently fired from her job at a strip club, Halley makes rent by selling perfume out of plastic bags to tourists outside lavish hotels, or stealing theme park passes from strangers to sell them to others.
By most standards, Halley isn’t a great mom – she lets her kid run around without supervision, and when she is supervising her, she curses and smokes blunts. But The Florida Project isn’t interested in making moral judgements. Instead, much like Baker’s approach in Tangerine, he gives an unfiltered look at the daily lives of working-class Americans, people whose stories are typically omitted from the screen.

Over the course of a sweltering Florida summer, Moonee, her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and their neighbor Jancey (Valeria Cotto) turns her dismal surroundings into their own personal playground. A complex of abandoned, dilapidated condos becomes a thrilling site of exploration as Moonee and her pals rummage through squatters garbage as if discovering treasure. And after the kids are forced to clean up a spitting contest on a neighbor’s car, they giggle and turn their punishment into a playful game. The beauty of The Florida Project comes from the kids, and at times the adults, finding the sheer joy and spontaneity in the bleakest and most ordinary of circumstances.

Watching the film brought back memories of my own summertime excursions from that age, where hours and days seemed to stretch on endlessly and boredom turned to fascination in a matter of moments. Midway through, the film’s series of daily, repetitious events appear to be leading nowhere. But things eventually circle around into a dramatic third act where Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe show us this world through the eyes of the child, the camera low to the ground as it trails the actors through grassy paths and follows them along sidewalks. Baker uses a verité style similar to Tangerine, only here the images (this time shot in 35mm) burst with a smooth, crisp radiance.

A24

The film also captures a sense of scale reminiscent of a child’s perspective. Baker alternates between tight close-ups, where the kids’ goofy, emotive faces fill the frame, and wide shots that show their small bodies skipping across parking lots with giant, colorful architecture. It creates the feeling that everything around these kids is big and almost mystical, from a giant orange dome of a grocery store to a huge wizard atop a costume shop. This is their Disney World, their Florida Project (the original name Walt Disney used when announcing his Orlando theme park), only here it’s the unremarkable that becomes infused with imagination.

Just as Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez brought a searing freshness and authenticity to Tangerine, so do the unknowns of The Florida Project. Baker discovered Vinaite via Instagram, and a quick scroll through her account will show videos of her smoking blunts and dancing to Future and Trillville tracks, not a far stretch from her character. She brings a captivating realness to Halley in a performance that almost seems effortless.

The real star star of the film, though, is Prince. She keeps the film alive at every moment with her gusto and acrobatic physicality, as well as her ability to handle delicate, dramatic moments with maturity and earnestness. And though Willem Dafoe is the most familiar face in the film as hotel manager Bobby, there’s something unique in his performance. The warm graciousness he layers through this stern father figure makes Bobby one of the most poignant and sensitive characters of his long career.

With Tangerine, Baker brought depth and humanity to a community scorned and mistreated by both society and Hollywood. The Florida Project immerses us in more stories that too often get excluded from movies. It finds magic in the mundane, and reminds audiences how to look at the world through fresh, untainted eyes.