Realism and Displaced Fantasy in Sean Baker’s "The Florida Project"
The Florida Project is one of 2017’s “hidden gems” of film making. Genius and gorgeous in both technique and narrative form, Sean Baker’s film highlights the overwhelming emotional reality of poverty in modern America. Through the use of perspective and setting, The Florida Project organizes its story through parallel narrative structure that allows the—adult—audience access to a world hidden on the periphery of Capitalism’s ultimate fantasy land: Walt Disney World.
Unfortunately, the film gained little popular audience awareness as it was released in November of 2017 alongside Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Justice League (although, not particularly good films they still garnered huge popcorn-eating cinema crowds). It also suffered from Oscar committee snobbery, as posited by film critic Heather Dockray who argues that “Oscar voters don’t historically like to look at women who are poor, especially when they are asked to stare at the poverty head on” (https://mashable.com/2018/01/29/the-florida-project-snub-womens-poverty/#KtvgEFexeaqs). Although Willem Dafoe was nominated for best supporting actor, the film gained little Oscar buzz (not surprising). This is a gross undermining of the film’s beauty—and frankly—genius.
The film centers on a young, single mother, Jancey (Bria Vinaite), and her daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), while they struggle to survive in a motel a few city miles from the Walt Disney World Resort in Kissimmee, Florida. Filmed on location, the film closely follows Moonee and her friends as they navigate impoverished childhood alongside the tourist Utopia closely associated with decaying late-Capitalism’s ideals. The Florida Project’s realism is shown through episodic encounters and events mostly seen through the perspective of the—sometimes obnoxious—young children as they scatter around the surrounding area, blissfully unaware of their economic hardship. What makes the film so powerful, from an audience’s standpoint, is how their childish naivety is encountered through mature, modern adult eyes. Mostly, Baker posits these encounters and scenes through narrative parallels that only more mature audiences may recognize.
Through the use of “narrative realism” there are multiple instances of symbolic parallels that the children—mainly Moonee—are either unaware, or not privileged to within their own diegetic (story-world) existence, of which the audience is given access. For instance, the setting itself—The Magic Castle Inn—is both isolated from Disney World’s profitable economic gains and metaphorical to its own narrative usage.
In setting the film within an aged motel (one that could have been a tourist destination thirty-years prior) based loosely on Disney iconography (Magic Kingdom, Cinderella’s Castle) the film draws immediate associations to its once symbiotic relationship to Walt Disney World, itself. Although Moonee and the other children seem unattached to the fantastical ideals the theme parks attempt to proclaim, the film constantly draws attention to the fact that they are suffering in immense poverty within only a few blocks from this “closed off” world of money-spending tourists the parks rely on. One specific sequence in the film situates a honeymooning couple whom accidentally book a room at The Magic Castel Inn as opposed to more plush accommodations “on property” (Disney slang for staying at a Disney Hotel). The young bride is nearly in tears while Moonee watches from outside of the lobby and narrates that the “adults [are] about to cry. I can always tell when adults are about to cry.” The children, in a sense, are closed off—both literally and figuratively—from the sociological reasoning behind the “adults” crying while the audience understands the horror and frustration the wealthy honeymooners experience at the site of the crumbling lower-class dwelling motel. It is this type of parallel that foregrounds the characters’ and film’s overall tone and narrative power.
A majority of the film is spent in locations or around surrounding characters who are profiting from Disney money or the Disney World vacation experience (Jancey attempting to sell perfume to vacation condo guests or stealing merchandise from “tourist trap” gift shops along the 192 corridor to pay rent). Smaller references are sprinkled throughout Florida Project for more emphasis such as the mother and daughter standing beneath the “Seven Dwarfs Drive” sign post or watching the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks by way of trespassing onto private property. But these parallel references can only be glimpsed by the audience and how Baker manipulates Moonee’s narrative. Through her childish perspective, the reality in which she resides is one of summer hijinks around the Magic Castle Inn while the inaccessible adult reality can be glimpsed through the pessimistic eyes of the mature viewer. In a way, Willem Dafoe’s character is a conduit between the childish world of Moonee and the reality of her impoverished mother, Jancey.
The Florida Project was an underappreciated and overlooked piece of Indie filmmaking; through realism and parallel narrative structure, the film allows a heartrending look into the lives of America’s hidden impoverished. By placing the setting within the shadow of “The Happiest Place on Earth” and focalizing the story through the perspective of children, audience members should be able to connect and balance their gaze between the fantasies of childhood and the tragedies of adult reality. Honestly, the film should be seen, dissected, and discussed on a larger scale than 2017’s cinema rotation (and marketing) allowed.