And so does writer/director Sean Baker, which is lucky for the movie, as it focuses so squarely on the kids, specifically little Moonee (the wonderful Brooklynn Prince) and her friends – the parents are peripheral figures here, often out of frame and up to who knows what. (The moment when Baker clarifies why Moonee is taking so many long baths is a real whopper.) The adults get caught up in little tiffs and dramas, while the kids merely know their routines, and their momentary escapes from them. Sometimes it comes in the form of a quick influx of cash, resulting in spending sprees and restaurant meals; when that runs out, Moonee is reminded of their station: “This room costs money.” “Pepperoni costs money.” For her, poverty is both overwhelming, and not – after a while, it’s just a fact of life. (The logistics of motel living, and the particulars of “residency,” are part of their world, and thus of the movie’s; it’s this whole way of life that we just don’t see in most movies, which is sort of shameful.)
Things happen in The Florida Project, but it’s not plot-driven (or, at least, it’s so casual that it doesn’t seem to be). This is a film rooted in character and incident, and in fleeting images of casual beauty: Dafoe having a smoke as the timed night lights kick on is one, and its fanciful ending is another. As with his previous film Tangerine, Baker is very good at capturing the way people perform for each other, putting up fronts and taking little stands, but he sees through all of that to the commonalities beneath; this is a deeply humanist filmmaker, and he’s sympathetic to these characters, flaws and all. That humanity, and its coexistence with awareness of those flaws, renders its closing passages all the more heartbreaking; the moral complexity of its outcome is overwhelming. What an unexpectedly gutting movie this is.
“The Florida Project” is out today in limited release.