The Florida Project. 2017. Directed by Sean Baker. Screenplay by Baker & Chris Bergoch.
Starring Brooklynn Prince, Christopher Rivera, Aiden Malik, Josie Olivo, Valeria Cotto, Edward Pagan, Bria Vinaite, Patti Wiley, Jasineia Ramos, & Willem Dafoe.
Cre Film/Freestyle Picture Company/June Pictures
Rated R. 111 minutes.
Admittedly, I’m not a Sean Baker fanboy. There’s nothing wrong with his work, in fact I thought Tangerine was, in several ways, very important. We all have our thing; mine’s not necessarily what Baker does with his films. No big deal. Well, The Florida Project is one of the best films of 2017. The hype surrounding it isn’t just because his last feature was a hit, the hype exists due to the fact Baker truly gives us a look at an impoverished world, right on the fringes of our vision. A world too many people barely know exists right under their nose.
It’s so honest, so raw that most people who are middle to upper class can’t genuinely understand the reality. But just ask someone who grew up with parents who weren’t making more than a few tens of thousands of dollars a year, if that, even; then you’ll see the truth.
Essentially, this is an exploration of decadence in American culture. Set right next to Disney World, the actual world in which this film’s characters live is a stark contrast from the ones the families inside the park are living. And while those people are on vacation, living in luxury, they’ll scarcely ever consider the poor folks living on the doorstep of Mickey and Minnie, hustling their bodies and hustling anybody around them just to stay afloat and alive.
Baker’s biggest, most evident point is this – the average person, in their mind, has an idea about economics and geography, so when they hear that people live next to Disney World they probably assume, because of its iconic status, that area would be fancy. Yet, like so many places with a thriving economy concerning famous attractions and landmarks, people living there often live in the shadow of that business and are left in poverty.
Such is the case with Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daugher Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who live in a motel right at the edge of Disney World. The setting immediately places the story and its characters in a socioeconomic framework, where a class divide exists. These lower class families live at the fringe of this massively popular, successful theme park, the happiest place on Earth, somewhere they’ll never be able to afford to go. A cruel juxtaposition, a vicious irony. Largely why Baker uses the POV of children, to show us this upsetting reality while somehow simultaneously shielding us a bit. We’re given an optimistic look at a darker side to life people aren’t willing to see.
This is also where Bobby’s (Willem Dafoe) perspective comes into play, though. There’s a whole father figure-guardian aspect to Bobby, the motel manager with a soft heart for those in need – to the point of being taken advantage of, at times. What’s important about his character is that he bears witness. He’s not an upper class guy, he’s middle class, but barely that and having to deal with his own problems. The scene where he confronts an older man, the likely paedophile, where his witness status prompts him into making a choice, which he does, and valiantly so, too. And it’s harrowing, because despite Halley doing what she does to keep a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, we’re mainly given Moonee’s POV. Even when danger or darkness encroach the frames, Baker holds us back because we’re seeing so much of the story through the eyes of a child. Bobby allows us those quick looks behind the awful curtain. This use of perspective makes for an interesting comparison, as we transition between the aspects of childhood and adulthood.
While the whole movie is affecting, particularly if you’ve lived on the lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder or you know others who’ve lived there growing up, The Florida Project‘s finale is where the most exhilarating moment comes and really whisks the viewer off their feet. When the kids, desperate not to leave the life they know, flee, escaping into the Magic Kingdom, it’s a brief respite from that life they do know. They take their moment to experience what they’ve been near this whole time, rushing away into a fantasy, a dreamy run through an unreachable world just shy of their fingertips. Ending on that moment was a perfect decision by Baker.
When Disney World looms large by a motel full of poor people on Seven Dwarfs Lane, some of them doing sex work and other things to survive, isn’t there a problem? The Florida Project is a deviously beautiful name for the film, serving as the actual original name for the Walt Disney World Resort, and moreover, it lingers in the mind the way people speak of the projects, as in public housing around the US.
This is one of the things that makes Baker’s film so excellent, how he touches on such heavy subject matter with a closeness that feels terribly honest, yet he’s able to keep us at a reach where it almost feels dreamy, from the eyes of Moonee; a wonderfully confused perspective, just as it is when one is a child. All I know is that Baker wowed me here, and I’ve thought of the film every day since I saw it. A relevant piece of cinema, like many of the greatest this past year. Some people loathe the poor, even GOP politicians seem to have disdain for the lower class, so it’s great for art to reflect the realities. Right around the edges of economic growth can often, and does often, sit the casualties of the flawed capitalism driving places like Disney. As long as they’ve got nice merchandise and fun rides and the movie characters make the children smile, not enough people give a shit.