Every once in a while, it’s important to ask ourselves why we go to the movies. They open our hearts and empty our wallets, but what are they really for? Roger Ebert famously called them “a giant machine for empathy,” and that feels at least partially true: we’re visual creatures, and we respond to watching people have experiences. Seeing someone who doesn’t look like us living a life that doesn’t feel like ours creates data points for us to file away, and the best movies build the strongest data points.

Sean Baker’s wonderful new film, The Florida Project, doubles down on this theory. Every frame is bursting with empathy. It’s not the assembly-line, sanitized kind; Baker seems to have achieved some sort of hushed moviemaking alchemy here, pulling us closer in to the lives he depicts with each passing second.

Working in a thematic minefield, he dodges cloying sentiment and replaces it with clear-eyed optimism. More importantly, he doesn’t pander to or fetishize his subjects: The Florida Project is about abject poverty, has an activist’s spirit, but not a second feels preachy or exploitative.

This shouldn’t actually come as much of a surprise to those familiar with Baker’s work. In 2015, he took Sundance by storm with Tangerine, a film about transgender black women in Los Angeles that he shot entirely using iPhones. By all accounts, it should’ve been a gimmicky failure, trying to be too many things at once. Instead, it was a total triumph: the film’s a comedy, but it has a beating heart, and the jokes are about the peculiarities of its lead characters’ lives rather than at their expense. It’s a fine line, but Baker walked it beautifully then, and he’s hardly lost his touch.

The Florida Project is best described as a fable, minus any icky Tideland connotations that descriptor might bring to mind. It tells the story of six year-old Moonnee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince, who landed the role by answering a local ad) and her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), who live in an extended stay budget motel called the Magic Castle just outside of Orlando. Moonnee and her friends (who form a sort of delightful way-pre-pubescent Brat Pack) pass their days in the otherworldly Florida sun, gently riling up Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the Magic Castle’s owner.

Much of the film focuses on the power dynamics between the age groups onscreen: Halley’s struggle to provide for Moonnee, Moonnee’s unique perspective puncturing holes in an adult’s worldview, and Bobby’s sense of responsibility for the poor families like Halley’s who live in his rooms. Through these interlocking pieces, Baker confirms himself as one of the great chroniclers of authentic American life. The film is upsetting, sure, but not because Baker ratchets up the melodrama and succumbs to Mo’Nique-chucking-a-TV histrionics. It’s upsetting because a world in which young girls have to grow up at six is upsetting. Baker, and The Florida Project, have a gift for letting circumstances speak for themselves.

These strengths alone are enough to mark The Florida Project as essential viewing, but it’s also a technical marvel. Cinematographer Alexis Zabe’s camera marinates the Magic Castle in warm pastels, funneling the painterly Florida of last year’s Moonlight through the eyes of the first grade set. His camera simply feels like it’s always in exactly the right place at the right time, lending the whole film a sense of pleasant inevitability, like things could hardly happen any other way.

By the end of the film (which, no spoilers, must have been…difficult to pull off), we’re left fuller than we came. It almost makes the viewer feel cheated by any other movie about poverty they’ve ever seen. Simply by treating his subjects as people with a capacity for joy and a will to derive magic from everyday situations, Baker has committed a revolutionary act. The Florida Project is a call to action, sure, but it’s not a funeral dirge. If movies are machines for empathy, it’s as well-oiled as they come.

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