‘FLORIDA PROJECT’ depicts youth in wondrous ways [an interview with director Sean Baker and star Bria Vinaite]

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

Growing up is hard work; any of our lives can tell us that much. Before we began adulting, or pretending like we have our lives together, we came of age. We made friends, had experiences and started to shape our castles from the grains in the sandbox called life.

Perhaps this is why we gravitate toward coming-of-age movies: They often remind us how, while we may come from different walks of life, we are not so different. We can watch a film about a boy or a girl growing up under extreme conditions, in a household with parents who neglect them and in an environment we’re unfamiliar with, and still find aspects to relate to. There’s a universality to the sense of wonder and innocence in these kind of stories, and writer-director Sean Baker captures this remarkably well with his latest stroke of near-perfection, THE FLORIDA PROJECT.

Baker (TANGERINE, STARLET) is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. It’s quite evident in his filmography that he wants to shine a light on the unknown and deliver social messages through empathetic works of entertainment. Whether he’s exploring the underbelly of Los Angeles with two transgender prostitutes or exposing the harsh reality of the porn industry, he never plays it safe or shares what’s been told before. Each film feels richly layered and individually unique, and THE FLORIDA PROJECT just may be Baker’s best work yet.

The story follows a sly six-year-old named Moonee (an adorable Brooklyn Prince) who, along with her close friends (Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera), explore, criticize and disrupt a simple hotel complex on the outskirts of Disney World. The inn, aptly called the Magic Castle, houses folks of all kinds, from tourists looking for somewhere cheap to stay, to the people who essentially turned it into permanent lodging. Moonee lives there with her young, naïve single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who struggles to make rent and can’t get a job, but manages by hustling in front of fancier hotels and sneaking meals from a friend’s restaurant.

Taking place over the course of a summer, these precocious kids are free to roam the kingdom and create happiness of their own near the “Happiest Place on Earth.” When they aren’t trying to revive a dead fish by putting it into a swimming pool, they are spitting on guests’ cars or turning off the hotel’s power just to see what happens. There’s not a single mischievous stone they wouldn’t turn over.

Sean Baker, center, on the set of ‘THE FLORIDA PROJECT.’ Courtesy photo.

Aside from Willem Dafoe’s heartwarming turn as a hotel manager, many of the actors Baker cast were plucked from obscurity. Vinaite, a 24-year-old New York-based clothing designer and apparent marijuana-lover, was found by Baker scrolling through Instagram. When we spoke with Baker about THE FLORIDA PROJECT, he said her posts channeled Halley’s carefree spirit.

“I remember one video on Instagram in particular where she was jumping around in a backyard, and it really made me laugh,” Baker recalled. “There were a lot of videos where she would speak directly to the camera while smoking a blunt. It was as if she didn’t have a care in the world, which was exactly what I was looking for.”

Baker admitted that they looked at some A-list actors for the part, but he kept going back to Vinaite’s Instagram saying, “no one is going to be as good as her” or feel as authentic. However, casting Vinaite wasn’t done so with a snap of a finger. While she was interested in the part after privately messaging Vinaite, Baker had to prove that his unconventional casting would be a fit for the film.

“I was really happy it ended up working out, because I felt a lot of pressure from myself to make sure I didn’t ruin the whole movie for him,” Vinaite said. “I did not think it would be as well received as it was, even with such an amazing director and [Dafoe] on board. I never knew about the hidden homeless situation until this film. There are so many things that aren’t talked about, and it’s my hope this film opens a new dialogue.”

Vinaite spoke about how Baker has a skill for taking slices of life and shaping them into beautifully crafted stories. All of Baker’s films expose new worlds to the uninitiated. When asked if this was the kind of material he actively seeks, Baker said he just wants to tell honest stories.

“What we explore in [THE FLORIDA PROJECT] is a national problem. Chris Bergoch, my co-screenwriter, brought it to my attention,” Baker said. “It wasn’t until I did research that I realized this is a nationwide issue. However, [Bergoch and I] decided to set it [near Disney World] because of the juxtaposition between children growing up in hotels and what we consider the ‘happiest place on earth’ right next door. We were thinking that the message we would be giving is if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.”

The duality of Baker finding a place where dreams come true next to a place where dreams go to die is a poetic dose of reality. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is both touching and heartbreaking. It will lift your spirits as much as it will send them down. But ultimately, we arrive at a film that’s tender and magical.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT is now playing in select markets, and opens in Dallas-Fort Worth on Friday (10/20).

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.