It’s December, which means we’re deep into award season–where the standard offerings might include family dramas you’ve seen before, but with a slight new flavor (Lady Bird) or the period drama your grandparents will rave about (Darkest Hour). None of these films will do anything inventive with the form because they’re like pizza – not fine dining, but you know what to expect regardless of where it comes from.
The Florida Project is the kid that steals that proverbial pizza, throws it on the ground, and asks if you want to go spit on cars.
The kinetic star of the film, six-year-old Moonee, is more likely to eat the Florida tourists than the alligators and it’s through her that The Florida Project seizes you unlike any other movie of 2017. Played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince, Moonee is a force to be reckoned with whether she is delighted, pissed off, or coming to adult realizations a little mature for her age. Director Sean Baker follows Moonee and her rugrat friends Scooty, Jancey, & Dicky talking into whirring fan blades, giving the bird to helicopter tours lifting off nearby, and getting into dangerous fun that’ll make you squirm as much as you’ll laugh. Their playground is the Magic Castle, a pastel purple motel/quasi apartment complex where Moon and her mom Halley live just outside the gates of Disney World, struggling to pay the weekly rent.
Unlike other filmmakers dealing with poverty, whose lens reveals their own middle class gaze of pity and disgust at how the other half lives (Precious, Rich Hill), Baker keeps us anchored with Moonee in a way that illustrates that this kind of living isn’t the misery-porn horror show Hollywood often paints. There’s plenty of sunshine, laughter and love to go around, but it’s a given that conflicts have higher stakes (jail, homelessness, etc.) compared to the latest “middle age man tries to find meaning to his life” romp (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Downsizing). The film delicately walks a line between Moonee’s gleeful freedom and the larger adult picture as Halley slowly spirals; it doesn’t downplay the direness of the situation, but doesn’t look down on mother or daughter either.
Part of this delicate balance is in Baker’s observational approach. Much like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, The Florida Project feels equal parts fiction and documentary. While developing the story, Baker researched the area around Disney World, talking with motel managers, and consulting child welfare officers who have seen many families like Moonee’s marooned in these motels after the financial crash and ensuing mortgage crisis. Coupled with this research, he cast non-professional actors and battled to steer a larger production crew around his guerilla-filmmaking style (his last film Tangerine followed the trials of a trans sex worker and was shot on an iPhone). When you look at this dedication to process, you understand how such miracle performances appear on-screen.
And in underscoring the film’s representational veracity, it’s worth noting that the film struck a personal note: if I want to tell someone what my childhood was like growing up in poverty, from now on I’ll have to pass them The Florida Project (and for the teen years, it’s always Fish Tank). Scenes in the film where Moonee grabs food donations, scores free ice cream after begging for change, swears like a sailor at strangers and runs away giggling – these are literal scenes from my life at Moonee’s age. Not to mention, the film makes other connections that nail the world of being poor; I can recall many characters like Willem Dafoe’s Bobby (the put upon motel manager who does what he can for his residents without jeopardizing his job or the Magic Castle) who tried to help me and my family financially or at least emotionally. When one of the families is moving out of the motel and have to give away a box of cherished toys because there’s no room in the car, it reflects my own 16+ moves around the country that led to most of our family mementos (photos, Christmas gifts, books) being lost to a storage unit we couldn’t keep up the payments on. Many of my personal memories and emotions about that time are reflected in beautiful, sometimes painful detail by The Florida Project. So for those who’ve come from the bottom (or are still struggling there) this is a story they’ll appreciate; and for the other half – it’s a story that will hopefully send them away with greater empathy for the 40+ million Americans living in poverty.
Some folks haven’t read the film that way though. Folks like Richard Brody with The New Yorker consider the film “artificially sympathetic to the point of obliviousness”, the overall argument ringing like a request for the aforementioned misery porn version of poverty we’ve seen so many times before. This kind of critique speaks to our attitudes about the poor – that they can’t know joy, because that’s time that could be spent pulling themselves up by their boot straps. As my friend Tracy pointed out, even great films that deal in themes of poverty like Winter’s Bone or Moonlight tend to have a one note nature to them of oppressive struggle and barely leave room for a laugh, people smiling, maybe out of fear of the kind of judgement offered by Brody. But it’s a tough line to draw, not letting characters fall into caricature as either lazy welfare moochers or noble hard working saints struggling to become middle class. The truth is closer to the middle and it speaks to the film’s nuanced handling that it’s hitting people in different ways.
The industrialization of filmmaking often squeezes the magic out of the medium. The rigid job delineations of unions and technical “perfection” of sound/camera recording can make the project wag the dog. And even worse, as filmmakers consume other movies, they can slip into imitating the onscreen emotions and worlds of their favorite directors vs the unfiltered ones in their own backyard. Baker overcomes these hurdles with a stylistic verve that’ll leave you more wowed than all the amusements of Disney World.