‘The Florida Project’ Cannes Review: Unruly Kids Steal the Show in Heartbreaking Drama

Director Sean Baker says he focused on children in a cheap Orlando motel to show the plight of the “hidden homeless”

Sean Baker has made six movies and a couple of TV series, but his ticket to Cannes didn’t become a likelihood until the success of his film “Tangerine” two years ago. He shot that movie on his iPhone on the streets of Hollywood for about $100,000; it grossed almost $1 million, earned four Film Independent Spirit Awards nominations and four Gotham Awards nominations.

And since Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight sidebar is always looking for hot young American indie directors, it put him in line to head to the Croisette for his new film, “The Florida Project,” which premiered on Monday.

While “The Florida Project” is bigger and bolder film, the two films definitely share DNA. Both are set in communities that have been marginalized, and both deal with people who are struggling to survive in the face of economic obstacles and public indifference, if not hostility. In “Tangerine,” it was a community of drag queens and transgender hookers along Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood; in “The Florida Project,” it’s homeless families on the outskirts of Orlando who find temporary lodging in the cheap motels that might have sprung up to cater to tourists who can’t afford Disney’s Grand Floridian. The motels have fallen into such disrepair that they’ve become ramshackle flophouses.

“We have homeless families living with children in budget motels lining Route 192 near the happiest place on earth,” said Baker in a post-screening Q&A. “We wanted to focus on the kids’ resilience and their innocence, but also use it to shine a light on a very important and timely issue – the hidden homeless.”

We’re introduced to one such group of kids and moms (no dads in sight) at a purple monstrosity called the Magic Castle. At first we meet a couple of the kids who live in the motel, Moonee and Scooty. All furious energy and abrasive exuberance, they recruit a third marauder, Jancey, through the classic getting-to-know-you gambit of drenching her mother’s car in spit.

These are kids who want to grow up to be the cast of “American Honey,” a film that came to Cannes last year glorying in its own unruly outsiders. I found that film (and its characters) unbearable, but I’ll give Moonee and her friends a pass because they’re kids, and because their default setting of raucous hostility so clearly comes from the mess of their daily lives, with wildly unfit single mothers who are themselves doing battle with the world in the least productive ways imaginable.

Neophyte actress Bria Vinaite plays Moonee’s mom Halley, a tattooed hellcat stripper who by the end of the movie is regularly sending Moonee into the bathroom to take long baths while Halley turns tricks in the other room. You never doubt her love, but you also never doubt that wreckage of her life does not bode well for her daughter.

As in “Tangerine,” Baker uses a blend of professional actors and non-pros. Willem Dafoe is the ringer here, grounding the movie with a touching, understated performance as the world-weary motel manager who’s fed up with his residents but also never able to write them off.

But the kids are at the center of the movie, and the faces you remember afterwards are Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, Valeria Cotto as Jancey and Christopher Rivera as Scooty. Their unruly energy gives the movie a constant charge – and the conceit of having Mooney and Scooty recruit a third child for their gang is a smart one, since what might seem to be the child actors’ hamming it up for Baker’s camera can also play as the old pals hamming it up for the new kid.

For most of the film’s running time, it doesn’t really go anywhere; the kids run around causing trouble, the adults do what it takes to survive, and “The Florida Project” floats from one episode to another, treading water but with furious abandon. As matters get more dire for Halley and Moonee, the film becomes more focused, though Baker thankfully never loses his love for revealing little moments that can be gems even if they don’t advance the story.

It ends with a showdown, and then an escape from the Magic Castle to the Magic Kingdom – or does it? In the Q&A, Baker and his cowriter Chris Bergoch said the idea was to let the viewer choose where the movie really ends. I’ve made my choice, and I think Baker’s vision of this heartbreaking American nightmare is a little too vivid to really include Mickey Mouse.