Sometimes a movie needs only a place – a real one, sharply observed – and a community you might see down at the supermarket to cast a spell. That was definitely the case with director Sean Baker’s 2015 breakthrough, ‘Tangerine’, shot on iPhones and vibrating with the sass of LA’s trans-hooker scene.
‘The Florida Project’, his mighty and empathetic latest, is another drama hewn from earthy resources. It’s set at the Magic Castle, a ratty motel on the outskirts of Orlando’s Disney World. The little kids who gleefully run around these halls and swampy backfields don’t seem to notice the disparity between their pastel-coloured surroundings and the hard-luck life they’re living. Nor do they appreciate the dangerous choices that their single mums (including a revelatory Bria Vinaite) stare down on a daily basis, simply to make the rent.
Into this riot of choreographed noise and non-professional performances comes veteran showstopper Willem Dafoe, who ties the movie together under his troubled brow as the motel’s harried manager, Bobby. Dafoe is known for his tortured roles (‘Platoon’, ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’), but this creation – a delicate blend of protector, fusspot and survivor is his richest, most lovable piece of work. He stands by the Coke machine, compassion pouring out of him, and the film takes on a saintly, worried grandeur.