A few years ago, a writer/director named Sean Baker emerged with “Tangerine,” his film about transgender prostitutes, which he shot on his cell phone. Amazingly, the film looked great (you’d never guess it was shot on an iPhone 5S) and offered a funny, uniquely unguarded depiction of its subject matter. You can argue that “Tangerine” is more of a successful stunt than a movie of great substance that you’d ever watch twice. Yet, Baker demonstrated that, really, if you want to make a movie, you don’t need all that much.
The DIY (that’s do-it-yourself) movement of young independent filmmakers isn’t just a showcase for “found footage” horror movies or tiny movies that randomly appear on Netflix. What Baker achieved with “Tangerine” is, in its own way, on the level with what George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” and Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” and Maui’s own Brian Kohne’s “Get A Job” accomplished: if you have a vision and you want to make your own movie, then get out there and do it!
Baker’s “The Florida Project” is his highly touted follow up to “Tangerine” and a far more ambitious, accessible and impressive accomplishment. It takes place in Orlando, Florida and focuses on three wild, unsupervised children who are frequently getting in trouble. Their adult guardians can barely keep up with them, as the kids play and find endless opportunities for mischief as the grownups struggle to make rent in the motels that provide a temporary home. As the kids misbehave and the adults are constantly making them apologize (or enabling them), we see how the children are truly a product of those they refer to as “Mommy” and “Daddy.”
Willem Dafoe is one of the few recognizable actors in this (the other recognizable face is professional scene stealer Caleb Landry Jones, who shined in last year’s “Get Out,” “American Made” and “Twin Peaks- The Return”). Dafoe plays a motel manager whose compassion for the kids and all of his tenants makes him a sort of surrogate father to everyone he works for. I’ve always loved Dafoe, who is always one of the best things about every movie he appears in, but the lived-in warmth and tough love qualities of his character here are something altogether new.
Despite Dafoe’s exceptional work, the film is carried by the kids, particularly by Broklynn Prince, Christopher Rivera and Valeria Cotto; these three never appear to be acting. At times, I wondered if they even knew they were being filmed.
At first, you watch the raw performances and seemingly random, unconnected vignettes and wonder if it will ever connect. The magic of “The Florida Project” is that you may not even notice when the plot takes hold and you find yourself strangely attached to these kids. The child actors convey the sublime escape and shattering moments of their bumpy lives beautifully and there are great scenes portraying their needed escape and unguarded declarations of friendship.
I wish I could say I loved “The Florida Project,” which has vivid scenes that have stayed with me, but my appreciation of Baker’s craft and what he’s come up with overall are a very different thing. Yes, its impressive that he could capture such naturalistic performances from a cast made up largely of amateurs (and young children at that) but the story has problems. Many scenes are tedious and redundant.
The ending is a disaster, as a truly harrowing moment is jarringly undermined by a montage that, I think, is meant to be taken as a fantasy. Baker should have trusted the emotional power of his closing scene and not attempted to soften his film with, of all things, a plug for Disney World. Considering how gruff and real so much of this is, I hated how the final moments seemed like a corporation had invaded the integrity of Baker’s defiantly independent work.
Two and a Half Stars