It’s not an exaggeration (or an insult) to say that filmmaker Sean Baker has been obsessed with sex in his last few films. “Starlet,” from 2012, focused on the unlikely friendship between two women, one of whom was a young porn actress, while 2015’s “Tangerine,” shot entirely on an iPhone, centers on a transgender hooker.
In Baker’s latest, “The Florida Project” (A24), Halley (Bria Vinaite, making her film debut) is a young, tatted, single mother who, after losing her job in a strip-club, takes to turning tricks in the motel room she shares with young daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince in a star-making performance). There is nothing magical about The Magic Castle, the motel where Halley and Moonee live, in Orlando on the depressed fringes of Walt Disney World. Manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) likes to think otherwise as he does is best to maintain civility and order among the guests, most of whom are one missed weekly payment from homelessness. He takes pride in the establishment and does what he can to keep up appearances.
Moonee and pals Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik) invent ways to entertain themselves during summer vacation in the stifling heat of the landlocked oven that is Orlando (at least the kids in Moonlight had an ocean in which they could cool off, as well as the accompanying ocean breeze). One such thing is to go to the motel next door and spit on cars in the parking lot from an upper floor. Of course, they get into trouble, but one good thing comes of it. Moonee meets her new best friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives at the neighboring transient motel with her grandmother and little sister.
As the summer wears on, life becomes increasingly difficult for Halley. Buying wholesale perfume and reselling it at more upscale Orlando motels only brings in so much money. Before long, she chooses to place an online classified sex ad. Meanwhile, the unsupervised Moonee keeps getting into more trouble, including setting a fire in an abandoned condo complex. When Scooty’s mother Ashley (Mela Murder) discovers what the kids did, she forbids him from playing with Moonee. This creates an irreparable rift between Halley and Ashley, who had previously been close friends. After a brutal physical confrontation with Halley, Ashley calls the Department of Children and Families and reports her.
When one of Halley’s scams goes wrong, the DCF shows up a second time, leading to an emotionally draining and powerful finale. “The Florida Project” begins with a loose and improvisational feel, but by the time it reaches its conclusion, it’s obvious that Baker and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch had thought out every scene. Will “The Florida Project” do for neglected kids run amok what “Tangerine” did for transgender sex workers? It’s entirely possible. Rating: B+