The Florida Project: No Pot of Gold at the end of the American Dream

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“I wish that leprechaun was nice.”

This line is delivered by six-year-old Jancey ( Valeria Cotto) who, alongside her best friend in a Florida carpark, stares whistfully at a rainbow, wishing for promised gold. So runs most of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), the director’s first fetaure since the acclaimed Tangerine (2015). The Florida Project continues Baker’s thread of realism by impressing upon us the realities of both sex work and the worldwide vein of poverty.

The film’s focus is The Magic Castle, a motel-turned home for many low-socioeconomic tenants run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Crucially, The Magic Castle is in the heart of Disneyland’s tourist ‘belt’ where the long shadows of wealthy tourists and their Disney™ demands are cast onto the cyclically poor tenants of the region. Focusing on six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), The Florida Project maps their downward spiral towards destitution over one summer. Both the internal choices made by Halley (and Moonee), and the vicious loop of social and financial pressures speed their downwards slide.

Sean Baker is establishing a reputation for a hyper-realist, immersive style, as created in Tangerine by shooting close-hand on iPhones, a realism he further develops in The Florida Project. The child actors perform in a natural, rambling style, shouting lines over one another. Equally, the adults are constantly fighting to make themselves heard, and the natural delivery of lines makes the near mockumentary film highly evocative. Painting in hyper-realist strokes the settlement The Magic Castle, Baker produces an oppressive sense of wealth and weight in the area. The endless drone of helicopters and highway traffic to and from the area — visitors to the fabled Disneyland — press upon the motel from all sides, the financial and legal pressures of life made manifest.

The performances and nebulous-narrative style of The Florida Project was reminiscent of Gareth Edward’s earliest feature, Monsters (2010). Both wielded real locations and improvisational performances to create an immersive realism in their works. This realism lends both films an emotional and socio-political credibility that makes the plight of these characters more resonant and relatable. Importantly, The Florida Project does not express back-story for any character. Even for Willem Dafoe’s hard-done-by-nice-guy Bobby, we are given only the tidbits that come up in strained conversation, tangents that Dafoe’s character immediately shut down. Equally, his tenants do not discuss the past. The overall emphasis is on the now, on the next paycheck, the next week’s rent, that the journey to get to this point, not the choices or circumstances that led the characters to the motel. On these spiraling slopes to destitution, there is a terrifying (but unacknowledged or unwanted) relate-ability to the small-scale fetishizations of commodities these characters undergo daily. Purchases of fast foods, plastic toys, clothes, alcohol and more extravagant and seemingly excessive purchases — such as an Ipad — merely reflect the same processes most of us go through with or own paychecks, whether or not we make exerted efforts to counteract the cycle of blind consumption. We each are sucked into the brief high of a well-rounded paycheck and the lows between.

Funnily enough, these images conjure in us the general emotion that perhaps, given access, we might make ‘a better job’ of things. Watching Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Moonee (Prince) and Jancey (Cotto) running about the swampy highways of Florida, we see them eat endless begged-for ice cream, waffles drenched in syrup, soda cans and cheese pizza. All the while, they are lighting things on fire, smashing windows and screaming abuse at passers-by. These kids are little terrors, incredibly disrespectful and inconsiderate of their fellows, behavior we blame upon poor parenting. My fellow filmgoers were equally anxious about — of all things — the lack of vegetables that the kids were given access to, yet we could not deny the near inevitable slide of Halley into reliance on full-service sex work for money. Meanwhile, the children’s independence and resourcefulness in their post-apocalyptic (it seems) surrounds is to be admired. Halley’s hands-off approach to parenting is often wince-inducing, yet somehow Moonee still evokes sympathy and admiration for her fierce loyalty to her loved ones and her ‘screw the man’ attitude, a full circle of emotional alliance that Baker has strategically built into the film’s otherwise structurally lacking narrative.

Without stepping expressly into the ring to battle it out with (capital C) Capitalism, a debate too large and complex for me to begin here, I would argue that The Florida Project instead of mapping the future doom of USA citizens, instead sheds light on the already ongoing apocalypse of capitalism worldwide. These limbo spaces, such as The Magic Castle, Las Vegas’ underground homeless network or Kowloon Walled City, exist in pockets of every society, dells so deep that the likelihood of escape from them seems very low. These films most importantly do not focus on condemning characters for their choices, but with equal strokes of the palette, illustrate the battle between individual and system in trying to carve a life using a paddle pop stick.

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