‘The Florida Project’: How We View Poverty

Rating: 4/4

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is at once both childlike euphoria and searing poverty. Many have pointed out that the garish purple, yellow, green stucco low-rent motels that populate an underclass in the shadow of Disney World is more about the dehydration curing mirage propagated by Disney. That a fantasy can be lived, even when those in the shadows deal with turmoil in a mostly futile effort to survive and dream. However, that view is limited. The Florida Project isn’t a critique of Disney World, instead it is a critique of a gluttonous American culture in the throes of cheap thrills, short cons, and wild technicolor destructive imagination.

Centering on Moneee (Brooklyn Kimberly)—a precocious foul-mouthed 6-year old girl —the film is a series of anecdotes. Many of these anecdotes, including burning down an abandoned housing complex, spitting on a woman’s windshield, and taking out the power from the motel they live in—the Magic Kingdom—are caused by Monee and her friends, Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera). Throughout the film, Bebe’s kids have arrived (For some of my more sheltered readers the gif. below will provide all you need).

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Nevertheless, much like the aforementioned Bebe’s kids, these children aren’t malicious. They’re bored kids on summer vacation whose parents are busy working low-paying jobs. These children are mere idle hands. And while Kimberley is an usually conscious actress at a young age, playing a character that is fierce, pugnacious, innocent, charming, and exuberant, Bria Vinaite, who plays her sociopathic druggy mother—Halley—is every bit as enduring. Halley is a bad mother. Though she loves her daughter, as she tumbles from her temp job, to selling cheap perfume from a shopping bag in front of a resort, to prostituting herself, she increasingly leaves the both of them susceptible to danger.

All of this occurs in the shadow of the unnamed character, Disney World. A magical place where dreams come true, where children throw-up, where tourists spend money they can’t afford on things they’ll never use. It’s a QVC shopper’s paradise. But it is also emblematic of an America where some live in townhouses, while others live in bed bug infested motels. It’s a collage of strip malls and buildings painted bright colors to hide their secret vagrancy. It also demonstrates what happens when a dream is left to rot in the Floridian sun, such as the abandoned development that the children burn down in the film. The development is a relic of the housing crisis that hit Florida so badly, and caused so many who speculated on a wish to crap out at the table.

Still, in a place blotted by abject poverty and children who are being taken care of by grandmothers, destitute families scraping by, and questionable role models, one moralistic character does emerge: Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Rarely has Dafoe played the warm character, except here. He is the manager of the Magic Kingdom, and the only one holding it all together. He is stern, protective, and caring. When there are no parents around, he often acts as the surrogate father and watchdog.

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One of the best moments of the film is when a pedophile is watching the children play. Dafoe confronts him. The pedophile replies that he was only looking for a soda machine. The walk that Dafoe and the pedophile take to the soda machine is incredibly well acted. To see Dafoe’s rising anger as the pedophile continually squirms to do anything, but go to that soda machine is brilliant. However, his greatest warmth is exemplified by how many chances he gives to Halley. He probably doesn’t like Halley, but he knows she has a daughter. It’s probably the only thing that makes him keep a roof over their heads. It is a role that will probably give Dafoe his first Academy Award nomination since 2001 with Shadow of the Vampire.

As The Florida Project hurls to its inevitable end, what is clear is the fact that Baker’s portrayal of poverty—located where no one expects it—is revealing, gentle, understanding, and judgmental all at once. Baker never looks down on his subject. He doesn’t assume the people who live in the Magic Kingdom are characters in an infomercial. Instead, they are real people with fatally limited dreams who only want a better life. As the film comes to its abrupt end in Disney World, done with an iPhone camera (A callback to Baker’s film Tangerine), it may leave some with a bit more to be desired.

The Florida Project isn’t for everyone. In the theater I watched it in, Landmark Century (Shameless plug, fantastic theater), many people commented that it was too much to see such suffering. One person commented that it was a Harvey Weinstein film (Too soon there buddy). But what was missed was the fact that this was a voyeur hyper-realistic film. That people do live on the barest of needs.  That to anyone from that background, it’s not too much to see, it’s their lives. And their lives, and the reactions to their lives, are a microcosm of America.

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