Youth is the key ingredient to the court jester defiance of D.I.Y. punk as a culture & as a philosophy. There’s a defiant, punk as fuck spirit that drives Sean Baker’s breakout feature Tangerine in a way that made it an easy pick for one of my favorite films of 2015 and one of the 2010s releases I’d most want to watch with the unintentional godfather of youthful punk defiance, John Waters (Wetlands would be up there as well). Baker distills that youthful, punk defiance even further in his follow-up to that iPhone-shot whirlwind of sex workers on the war path by looking to even younger, more defiant protagonists: actual children. The Florida Project is already facing early waves of backlash for its cultural sins as poverty porn (and it’s honestly a miracle that Tangerine largely escaped the same). These accusations are understandable given the film’s children-in-peril setting in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks in Florida, but they presume that the film’s sole goal is to merely report that these impoverished communities exist just outside the tourist industry playgrounds they surround. The Florida Project is not the miserable, poverty-exploiting drama that reading frames it to be. Rather, it captures the defiant punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in those insular, run-down motel communities. The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.
Willem Dafoe (in Willem Dafriend mode here) stars as the only recognizable face in a crowd of “nonprofessional” actors (give or take a Macon Blair or a Caleb Landy Jones), mostly children & young women. His exasperated motel manager, Bobby, is a reluctant caretaker of the single mother families that rent his rooms by the week. He attempts to maintain a professional emotional distance from these near-homeless families, whom he occasionally has to police & evict, but fails miserably due to direct contact & a soft heart. Like all adults & authority figures, however, Bobby is only a periphery presence to be mocked & subverted by the punk-as-fuck little rascals that play throughout the purple pastel stucco buildings that cater to Disney World tourist runoff. Their ring leader is our POV character, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a dangerously sharp child who runs wild around the motel as if it were a playground, with the approval of her sex worker mother. Instead of solemnly gawking at her small family’s limited means, The Florida Project celebrates the minor successes Moonee pulls off in the tropical Florida heat: scheming tourists out of ice cream money, crashing fancier hotels’ breakfast buffets, initiating newcomer kids into the joys of smashing the fragile semblance of routine normality authority figures like Bobby are tasked to maintain, spitting on cars. It’s no mistake that the opening credits are set to the disco hit “Celebration,” since the entire intent of the film is to celebrate good times, even in the face of the harsher realities at the story’s fringes. Although Moonee & her cronies are financially locked out of The Happiest Place on Earth, they defiantly turn the Magic Castle & Futureland Inn knockoffs they are allowed to occupy into a punk rock amusement park of its own.
Many reviewers are discussing The Florida Project in the same modern American poverty documentation terms used to describe last year’s (much less jubilant) American Honey. I believe the film’s vibe is much more in line with the young court jester punks of titles like We Are the Best!, Daisies, Female Trouble, etc. There’s certainly a detectable quality of documentation of hyper-specific “at risk” Floridians who live at the tourism industry’s fringes, following them with a detailed eye as they pass theme park-style gift shops & listen to trap music on smartphone speakers. Baker’s filmmaking style is much less kinetic & haphazard here than it was in the iPhone-shot sugar rush of Tangerine, but the rich 35mm colors & fixed camera precision of The Florida Project only stabilizes & beautifies the world of its children-in-peril punks enough to emphasize their exuberance & imagination. The pure, dangerous joy these kids find in the palm tree-lined parking lots of an urban Florida wasteland is infectiously genuine. The movie doesn’t ask for your pity, but rather a hearty cry of “Up the punks!” and recognition that “All Cops Are Bastards,” even well-meaning motel managers. The court jester youthfulness of punk requires you to take no authority or life challenge too seriously (even though situations are often physically & emotionally dangerous here) and the little kids who run free in The Florida Project’s miniature domain laugh in the face of it all without caution and without apology.