What do you do when the official, powerful, grown up world is a false front, as useless as balsa wood, and the imaginary, unsupervised world of the hustler is full of grit and love? You run.

The Florida Project tells a heart-wrenching and bleak story set in a world most of us will never have to negotiate – one of near homelessness, a highly delicate balancing act that involves an exhausting number of maneuvers to keep from collapsing – until one day, it does. A slice of life of the invisible poor, The Florida Project follows six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends through one fateful summer that is belied by the long, open days of idyllic boredom in the unrelenting heat. The children and their families live a precarious, hand to mouth existence of motel living, rented week-to-week in places that were only ever meant to be temporary. As such, they exist somewhere between transients and rock stars. 

The Florida Project is very special. It’s so subtle and says much about our world: artifice, armor, innocence, hustle to survive, the precarious, essential need for connection and friendship, the make-or-break whims, choices, luck and fragility of human bonds. It’s the most beautiful film in many years. This film wraps itself around one’s heart in ways that are difficult to understand or articulate. I can’t be the only one whose long suppressed dreams to work in film have been whipped up via a longing to run coffee on a film set anywhere for this fine, world-bending artist. 

You watch as an adult who thinks you know better than these characters, while, simultaneously, you feel it as a six year old, logic beyond your grasp, instinct overrunning thoughts and conditioning, seeing the long gone freedom of innocence: adventure and languid boredom around every bend. The audience’s worry for these children is constant, as Baker’s camera follows them fly on the wall style (but always artistically). His is the eye of the hard-scrabble artist who has always had to search hard for beauty in this world. Much like his characters. His intimacy and trust with his actors, often newcomers but now including legendary character actors, is already historic, paying dividends in every scene. Baker’s knowing audience gets this. We breathe a sigh of relief whenever we see a lighter moment, a sunset or a cinematic vignette, amid the sun-scorched strip of motels and tawdry commerce. Baker’s lens is both visual and emotional. He knows when to pull back and go wide, to let go, or get an uncomfortably tight shot. The audience has to submit fully to the experience, forget preconceptions or try to guess where the story will go.

The film is full of visceral sense-memory, of unconditional love and acceptance we once felt for our role models. This was no less true if it was a one-way ticket of the indifferently raised. It’s full of strange beauty and subtle flourishes about poverty and excess, a study of the underbelly of tourism and its casualties. The world of the film, at a glance, is full of tacky colors, insufficient clothing and people living on empty calories. But it’s really about the resilience and beauty of children and the weight they have to bear because some adult or other says so. Or some adult is neglectful, or cruel, or well-meaning, or interfering. It’s about the almost. The fleeting friend, the bitter babysitter, the conditional gift, the surrogate dad figure who cannot function for real in family life, who can only bellow and fix small things around the place and watch from a detached perch, in air conditioned comfort. A building super / motel manager is beholden to his employer. The kids at his feet are really another nuisance, a mess to clean up, a chore, if one that he deals with kindly. Willem Dafoe deserved all the awards for this role. In the back of his tanned, Floridian neck, criss-crossed with the marks of time like a benign gator, is a map of despair. His shoulders bear the weight of the world, as someone who asked for none of this but finds himself running a tragi-comic circus in the shadow of The Happiest Place on Earth ™. He’s one of those actors who was always stunning to watch and has only gotten more delightful with age, as he’s mellowed into the odd, funny gentleman we always knew him to be. 

There is almost magic realism in this world of unsupervised children and their unlikely adventures in timeless spaces not far from highway underpasses. But there is nothing twee about the slices of life shown for Moonee and her friends over the summer. They are clear-eyed. Tired. They already know how rare solitude is, how precious an old tree is, how the green of the forest is not their destiny but a brief respite from hot, dirty asphalt. Their magic kingdom. It is free to enter but so temporary in their hard lives. The predator we reflexively fear may be eyeballing these wild kids appears on cue, but is dealt with heroically in a moment that is magic realism. We know that these are the “sort” of kids who’ve been easy pickings in real life: those who play unsupervised on the edge of parking lot weed jungles, whose parents are elsewhere, trying to earn a buck, or some whose parents may be remiss but have, up til one awful day, been lucky.

In this film, people are not only on the bottom rung of survival in a daily hustle but exist in a hostile environment. There is money for exterior paint but not an exterminator. The appliances are busted, permanently. They cannot even pretend to be at home, put down roots, become comfortable. Yet, having nowhere else to go, they stay.  

But these observations are in hindsight, food for thought, echoes. Sean Baker is known for his impossibly light touch while capably telling the stories of down-and-out hustlers who are not far from the street. In Tangerine, he pulls off a comedic classic of contemporary life: Christmas Eve as experienced through the eyes of the unseen L.A. underclass. Tangerine has tropes of the beloved caper – a road movie of a sort, a buddy film – we’ve enjoyed since the beginning of Hollywood, with twists, surprises and poignancy. It is also a new kind of Christmas movie. But Baker films are hard to describe. They pull you in gradually and with question marks in your mind at first, following their own rhythm, cadence, mixing experienced actors with first timers in all their beautiful rawness, until you remember that this is what artful films are supposed to (and so rarely) do. They are supposed to take you somewhere new, make you feel empathy for someone whose journey is very different from yours, whose essential human needs are mirrored within your own deepest ones. Within an hour, a good filmmaker will have you wanting to fight for his lead character’s honour. By the end of the picture, you want to save their very life.

One could go endlessly, indulgently academic about this film. Someone should, and someone will.

The colour study alone could occupy me for days. The rich, regal, historic and Catholic role of purple down the ages. Pastels out of a long gone Disney 1950s palette, set against almost violently verdant green, in the rain no less. The harsh black and white sign juxtaposed next to motels full of single mothers and kids by the highway in people-high lettering: “PREGNANT?” By the time we see the woods it looks as strange as the artificial landscapes did an hour before. Reality and artifice are subsumed and twisted and it’s impossible to see the seams – the sets, the costumes, the props – as one does in most films, even Indie ones. Sean Baker does something new with the presumed limitations of indie filming. He makes it all look deliberate, perfect, ideal for the story he’s telling. He moves in to that world, he makes that omelet with love. That makes it better, different, than any old egg you could order.

Here, two newcomers carry the film as an indelible mother and daughter who are believable and full of truth. The role of Halley (played unforgettably and without artifice by Bria Vinaite) is one that A-List actors would line up for. It is meaty and they would hope, Oscar bait. But Baker’s naturalistic casting and eye for originality is a gift that is worth fighting for. And it deserved all the awards and acclaim it missed due to poor distribution, destined to be the best of all things for timelessness: a hidden gem. A diamond in the rough. A jaw-dropper, before your own home television, a gobstopper. A private buffet you can cry freely before without strangers seeing you. A film worth taking to bed. 

Trying to write about this film, but only succeeding in Tweeting about it, I finally get a flash: It’s the food. The food in this film hits on a subterranean level. Food in Sean Baker is not only a kitchen-less poverty of motel living but a deeper, artful reflection on self-soothing and fleeting pleasure. There’s nothing here but fair food, the food of summer vacations, the stuff you eat when eating is not a worry for you, when your money is fun money. Not something you can make a steady diet of. For Halley and Moonee, it’s food that is negotiated and bargained, stolen and hustled, but also the food of innocent childhood summer: ice cream, pizza, waffles and syrup. Children share an ice cream cone they’ve hustled from strangers nickel by nickel after a long walk and with disdain from the person selling it. Imagine how sweet that is.

Food for children, as well as the poor and the unwell, is symbolically vast and literally everything that marks and defines the day. Can make or break the day. Baker understands this and illustrates it in a twist on the way that sumptuous displays in period films do. He shows us the simple joy experienced by a child in that brief moment of eating anything she wants, consequence free, something we’ve long forgotten as adults, as self-flagellating overweight people, as eternally anxious people lately blamed for not only our own happiness and health but even cancers, when so much of what is right or wrong with us is borne in the air, the environment, the predetermined chemical filled products we are offered. Moonee’s enjoyment of pancakes, experimenting with raspberries AND strawberries in one bite, syrup and fresh squeezed orange juice in a posh hotel buffet is contrasted with her mother’s placid, watchful demeanor. The meal, and the days they’ve shared have all the import you can imagine. The end of the movie is the end of their short story, too. You are transported from one side of the table to the other – you understand life from both sides now – here it is. Freedom, simple pleasure, what a child needs versus the weight of the world, hopelessness, a dead end, failure, worn effortlessly by Halley, as it is by now familiar to her. Not long ago, Halley was Moonee. Moonee either will or won’t become Halley. But this is an end to the link of mother and child that is supposed to be theirs, private, real, unbreakable, innate. The world awaits.

The Florida Project is an Impressionist master work rendered in what should be overexposed Easter egg Florida hues. But instead of garish, sun bleached concrete, the lights and darks are perfectly balanced in this work. The empathy and intimacy are without compare. You can stare at it up on the wall and wonder, trying to know these people, then suddenly know them. Know that modern life has failed us all and there are no rules anymore that promise a happy ending of any kind. In the shadow of the magic kingdom, where fireworks and parades are forced every night, rendering occasion into hollow routine, where wristbands to entry are worth somewhere from free to thousands of dollars, more or less than a week’s rent or an hour of sex work, where a hustler is hustled by a tourist who knows she has no idea of an item’s worth, where the poor are locked out but seem mostly immune to the charms of the tourist trap they live amid, life beats. Struggle continues. Children keep coming, despite the hostile environment, their limited lot. Life finds a way. So does laughter. So does love. Run after it.

The Florida Project is the best American film made in 2017 full stop, and a new classic for anyone with a beating heart who was ever a child.

By Contributing Editor Jacqueline Howell