A pivotal scene in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project comes near the end of the film. Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is eating breakfast at an Orlando hotel near the one where she lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Baker presents the little girl in close-up as she samples each item she took from the dining-room buffet and makes some cute comment about it, and he uses jump cuts to skip from one sampling to the next. The scene is subtly jarring, as jump cuts and close-ups haven’t been crucial to the movie’s visual grammar up until this point. With the conclusion only minutes away, it seems a little late for Baker to be introducing new visual ideas into his filmmaking. Yet the sense of starting over feels just right—throughout its duration, The Florida Project seems to be discovering itself, figuring out its structure as it goes along. That Baker would suggest that the picture’s only beginning just when it’s about to end is consistent with his aesthetic project.
That project might be described as making time stand still. Like an antithesis of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (which depicted the cumulative effects of time), The Florida Project conveys a sense of endless stasis. Baker doesn’t give dramatic emphasis to any individual scene; instead he grants a sense of wide-eyed wonder to major and minor events alike, and this gives the film a uniform tone that belies any sense of dramatic development. The impact of Baker’s temporal sculpting is twofold. Like Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), The Florida Project conveys how time is experienced by a small child. Baker tries to imagine how Moonee perceives the world, with only hazy comprehension of the future or the past. Similarly, the future and past can seem ill-defined when you’re impoverished, as Baker’s characters are, and the struggle to find rent money or your next meal can obscure everything else around you.
By drawing attention to the commonalities between these two perspectives, The Florida Project makes the provocative argument that living in poverty can be like living in arrested childhood. Throughout the film, Baker illustrates that Moonee’s daily life isn’t that different than her mother’s. Halley spends most days lazing in her motel room, smoking pot and watching TV; Moonee, whom we see during her summer break, spends her days playing with her friends and exploring the motel grounds. When she wants ice cream, she and her friends pester tourists to give them change until they have enough to buy what they want; when Halley needs to pay rent, she buys perfume from a wholesaler and sells it to tourists at marked-up prices. Moonee doesn’t pretend she isn’t out to scam strangers, and Halley doesn’t put up much of a front either. Her plea for charity is transparent, and she’s shameless about making money this way, playing on her appearance of helplessness and naïveté just like her daughter does.
Baker gives the audience glimpses of how Halley earns her money for most of the film; it’s only during the final third that he starts presenting more details of her scamming operations. As such, the first two-thirds of The Florida Project feels downright cheery, focusing on Moonee and Halley as they happily idle away the days. Baker uses wide-screen brilliantly, granting lots of open space above and to the sides of characters, regardless of whether they’re outside or indoors. The characters seem to have endless room, as well as endless time, to play around in. In one of the movie’s set pieces, Moonee and two of her friends start a fire in an abandoned time-share condo near the motel where she lives. The fire spreads, and the building burns down, and the residents of Moonee’s motel gather outside to watch as though it were a fireworks display. “Let it burn,” says one man, venting his anger at people a few steps above him on the social ladder. His line reminds you of the characters’ economic desperation, which Baker has been so good at obscuring by hewing to a six-year-old girl’s perspective.
Moonee may not understand what the adults around her are angry about, but she’s already picked up on their nastiness. The Florida Project begins, in fact, with Moonee and two friends gleefully spitting on a car at the neighboring motel. When the car’s owner comes out to chastise the children, Moonee curses at her and claims to have done nothing wrong. The kids’ games generally involve making a mess for adults to clean up—in another set piece, they break into their motel’s maintenance room and turn off the electricity for the entire building. Baker composes a marvelous wide shot in which the motel residents come out of their rooms one by one to complain, gradually filling up the frame. It’s worth noting that this congregation of people, like the one that occurs later around the burning condo, is based on mutual grievance.
Still, a sense of community wins out. The motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), turns the power back on, then walks triumphantly across the parking lot. “I love you, Bobby!” one resident shouts sarcastically. “I love you too!” he shouts back, in a manner that suggests he really means it. In spite of the desperation of the people around him (many are working-poor like Halley and live at the motel), Bobby seems to enjoy his job—he enjoys interacting with people and wants to help them whenever he can. A scene in which Bobby allows Moonee and her friends to play hide-and-seek in his office is the sweetest that Baker has yet filmed, presenting with understated admiration a bit of kindness in action.
Several scenes of The Florida Project unfold from Bobby’s perspective, contrasting with the rest of the film by showing what the world looks like to a genuine adult. It’s in these moments that Baker acknowledges the passing of time—Bobby seems run down by age, yet also wiser for the wear. Moreover, he seems practiced in his handling of difficult residents such as Halley. Baker still presents Bobby in the same spacious wide shots as he presents other characters, conveying how the character sympathizes with the others’ perspective. Bobby’s sympathy mirrors the director’s own.