Director Sean Baker, first caught critical attention with 2015’s Tangerine — a Christmas dramedy about transgendered sex workers in LA, shot entirely on iPhones and starring amateur performers in semi-autobiographical roles. If you find that description a bit bizarre, you aren’t alone. Tangerine was a film of lovely contradictions: abrasive naturalism with near-slapstick romanticism, guerrilla filmmaking offset by a gorgeous color palette, “edgy” subjects with traditional holiday cheer. In The Florida Project, those contradictions aren’t exactly gone, but they tend to meet each other halfway. Take the lead, Moonee, a six-year-old member of Orlando’s “hidden homeless” population residing in a motel just outside of Disneyworld. Adorable and infuriating in equal measure, all heartwarming giggles and earsplitting squeals — in short, she’s a six year old. She’s rough around the edges, to be sure, but it’s a roughness we’re primed for; we know exactly how to love her and the little fantasies she builds in dark places. Or consider the visual style: that same gorgeous color palette sans iPhone tremble, brightly lit and meticulously composed, like a grungier Wes Anderson. Even the performances, for all their committed realism, are gentler on the audience: for every three minutes spent with the amateur tenants, we get one with Willem Dafoe’s big-hearted manager — soft-spoken, warm, and (if there’s any justice) a shoo-in for a Supporting Actor nod. Across the board, Florida an easier pill to swallow. But it’s still a much more bitter pill than its Sundance-ready trailer might have you believe. There’s no grand catharsis to be had here, no sweeping arc marked with soundtrack cues, none of the transcendent moments that made American Honey so hypnotic or Short Term 12 so potent. Moonee’s story is slow, aimless, and relentlessly true to life; its drama more docu- than melo-. And there’s just something a bit uncomfortable about that middle-ground, between saccharine and abrasive, soft and hard, which a nudge in either direction might have solved. I love the humanism at Baker’s core, and the way he puts a spotlight on unconventional stories. I just don’t quite know where this one fits.
See my review on Letterboxd