The Florida Project (2017)
How you see The Florida Project (2017) depends entirely on the lens you use. There are several options: it could be seen as a drama about a precocious free-range six-year old living on the edge of squalor; a reality-mockumentary about the gritty texture of life in the shadows of Disney World; or a post-GFC critique film that examines what inequality and hopelessness looks like in what is now Trump’s America. Of course, it can be all of these at the same time but the one thing it is not, is pleasant to watch.
There is no plotline in the traditional sense, rather a montage of moments in the pitiful ordinariness of living in poverty. Instead of a beginning there is an entry point; the middle has no discernible narrative arc; and the final chapter is inconclusive. Six-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her unemployable stoner mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) in the run-down Magic Castle Motel adjacent to Disney World. It is temporary accommodation but most of the residents cannot afford to live anywhere else. The manager Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe) is a salt-of-the-earth humanitarian, dealing out tough love and genuinely caring for the residents. Moonee makes mischief just to watch grown-ups react: she is bright, funny, adventurous and likes junk food. The constantly slurred Halley struggles to provide food and shelter while Bobby tries to protect his wards from themselves. The trio are the human anchor points around a series of everyday happenings that are trivial, except that Halley’s inability to pay the rent inevitably leads her to renting her body and stealing, and state child welfare authorities intervene.
In many ways, the characters and events are not the point of this film. While the three actors excel in their roles, their performances feel like cameo roles or avatars for an underclass of people denied a fair share of their nation’s wealth. ‘The Florida Project’ was the name given to the massive commercial development that became Disney World, and using it for the film title is a metaphor for unfinished work. These Disney neighbours have no hope of paying for a ticket inside. The helicopters landing and taking off all day bring the incessant flow of wealthy tourists dropping in for fun but never seeing what lies just outside the lavish gates of this capitalist citadel. Viewers see it all through Moonee’s eyes, with camera angles at her height looking up at a world that offers her so little, expecting her to remain dispossessed.
Hardly entertainment, this is a deliberately disturbing film. Some commentators describe it as beautiful. It may be so only in the sense that an as yet uncrushed daffodil on a battlefield can provide aesthetic relief from what is ugly. Despite its joyless offering, young Brooklynn Prince shines a warm light into a dark place and Willem Defoe gives a quiet portrayal of unacknowledged heroism. Several viewers walked out of my cinema and it is obvious why. I’m glad I stayed, but the memory is far from sweet.
Director: Sean Baker
Stars: Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite