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Film Review: The Florida Project

The Florida Project (2017; Directed by Sean Baker)

A joyously tragic child’s-eye view of the precarity of American poverty, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project dances with giddy sadness back and forth across the line between peculiar indie movie and contemporary film classic. Following playful, innocent children, their thinly-stretched underemployed mothers, and a harried but fundamentally decent manager subsisting together on a rainbow-hued motel and retail strip on the poor margins of Orlando’s Walt Disney World, Baker’s emotionally-expansive film is fundamentally about the broken promises of the American pursuit of happiness, a happiness made expensively manifest in the constructed simulacra of arrested childhood known as the Magic Kingdom. But The Florida Project is fantastically and sincerely attuned to a childlike sense of wonder at the possibilities of the exciting playground of the world at the same time as it notes and quietly laments the shabby dishonesty with which the purportedly more serious and mature adult world fails to deliver on those promises of happiness.

Central to Baker’s generous vision is Moonee (the remarkable, naturalistically mercurial Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old girl who lives with her tattooed, hair-dyed, rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a pink-painted pay-by-the-week motel called the Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida. Free all day due to summer break from school, Moonee goes on wild excursions of play on the strip and its abandoned environs with her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and later their new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto). It’s mostly joyful and innocent fun but sometimes tips over the edge into real trouble (Jancey is befriended when the other two are caught spitting on her guardian’s car and enlist her cooperation in cleaning it) and even danger, but it’s shot by Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe as a kaleidoscopic and glorious adventure (they pass a gift shop whose front facade is a huge bearded wizard, for example), and always from the perspective of the children themselves. The Nerdwriter Evan Puschak, in a video essay arguing for the film’s importance in light of its Academy Award snubbing for a Best Picture nomination, likens its kid-level viewpoint (which often persists in low angles even when the kids are not onscreen) to the old Little Rascals short films.

But Baker, who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, introduces the dire consequences of poverty into this innocent wonderland with a faucet-drip of seriouness. Halley brings Moonee along with her as she discusses her recent dismissal from an exotic dancing job and hawks wholesale perfume at knockdown prices to tourists in a tonier resort’s parking lot. Moonee collects bread and other nourishment from a local church’s travelling food bank, and she and Scooty make daily stops at the back door of the diner at which the latter’s mother Ashley (Mela Murder) works to receive free servings of waffles. As these workarounds evaporate (Halley is chased from the resort by security, Ashley cuts out Halley and forbids contact between Moonee and Scooty after the kids set a fire in an abandoned housing lot), Halley turns to prostitution to make ends meet, thus threatening her custody of her daughter.

Baker (also serving as his own editor) depicts Halley’s downward descent without judgement or dramatic acknowledgement of how momentous it is in her life or in Moonee’s; it just happens, like life itself. The little girl is simply shown in a series of shots spending more and more time playing alone in the bath, until a strange, unseen man bursts into the bathroom and is shocked that a child is present (the camera never leaves Prince’s face, as she is alarmed and surprised). This sense of fairness and understanding towards poverty and its effects pervades The Florida Project, almost as a rebuke to a society (and to a public and entertainment discourse) that painfully does not share such a sense, and engages in broad, condescending caricatures and moral opprobrium of the poor on the occasions when it pretends to. This marginal, precarious America is not merely ignored and disavowed by the more respectable and comfortable classes, it is actively shamed and punished for its own marginalization by public discourse and political policymaking. The poor are even blamed for the foolish sins of the better-off: it is this disadvantaged class that was fingered for making Donald Trump president, while the comfortable, prejudiced white middle class of the suburbs and exurbs really turned out to put him in the White House.

Baker does not romanticize poverty, either. The Florida Project operates on a moment-by-moment realism, pregnant with weight and consequence and the ever-present possibility of collapse. It does not elide the truth that Halley’s problems are greatly exacerbated by her own decisions and personality, and are not simply pre-determined by political, social, and economic superstructures beyond her control or understanding. This is made awkwardly clear when she shows up at Ashley’s diner after the opening of the rift between them and torments her ex-friend as a belligerent customer, treatment which Ashley endures with an on-the-edge customer-service-professional stoicness that the more brazen Halley cannot so much as fake for a minute. Maintaining a paycheque and supporting her son is more important to Ashley than defending her own dignity in the face of abuse, while Halley will stand up for herself, right or (more likely) wrong, regardless of the cost. The scene demonstrates the difference between these two woman as well as part of the reason why the system will sooner catch up to Halley, but it’s also a dramatization of the agonizing, debasing choices necessary to survival at the bottom of the pyramid of late capitalism.

The miracle of The Florida Project is that it imparts the crushing devastation of this situation of poverty without ever sacrificing beauty and joy at the altar of realism. Zabe’s camera finds aesthetic poetry and leaping gorgeousness in this depressed strip of Florida, bursts of the visual sublime contrasting with hints of socioeconomic hopelessness like a magic-realist work that nonetheless never skimps on the reality. It finds determined goodness as well, in the quasi-reluctant efforts of the Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) to offer Halley and his other tenants some measure of protection from the harsh world that seeks to make them account for their unforgivable lack of wealth: he chases away a likely pedophile as well as a disgruntled john of Halley’s, and looks the other way on any number of violations of rules, policies, and laws by longer-term hotel guests despite the insistence on enforcement expressed by the stingy motel owner (Karren Karagulian).

The magic realism becomes quite nearly explicit in The Florida Project‘s final scene, as Moonee and Jancey flee the agents of the state Department of Children and Families about to remove the former from Halley’s care all the way into Disney World itself. It’s a fulfillment of the desire for escape into a realm of wondrous, untouched innocence that they approximate with creative imagination (ie. when the girls “go on safari” earlier in the film, they look at a herd of cows) because the more elaborate capitalized simulacra is not affordable to them: although there’s no way that two children without a cent in their pockets could make it through the theme park gates with its USD$200-ish admission fees, we do not quibble for the sake of the metaphor.

The brief closing moment was clandestinely filmed on an iPhone without the resort’s knowledge or permission, much like the notorious indie psychological horror flick Escape from Tomorrow was. Like that unquestionably lesser film, The Florida Project conceives of the hermetic Disneyfied commodification of childhood happiness as a particularly American process, and one revealing of the damaged core of fractured promise at the heart of the nation. But where the clumsier Escape from Tomorrow, with its moody film-noir black-and-white cinematography and disturbing but half-baked surrealist weirdness, reflected personal and collective psychic wounds, The Florida Project emerges from its pastel-emblazoned vision of a forgotten America with its hope and goodness intact. There can be a tendency for art that interrogates the essential hypocrisy of corporate capitalism’s mantra of individual happiness to cede too much ground to the exploiters of joy, but Sean Baker hearteningly avoids surrendering that sunny glow to those who would bottle it, water it down, and sell it for profit. They do not own innocent happiness, The Florida Project says emphatically; children like Moonee do. How magnificent that possession is, and how terribly sad it is that we’ve collectively built a world that is too quick and eager to take it away.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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