The Florida Project Review

Buying Into the Lie

Buying into the lie is at the core of The Florida Project, a title that might raise interest among theme-park aficionados because of its relevance to Disney. (Before Walt Disney passed away, he announced “the Florida project” to the world, referring to the 43-square-mile stretch of land he had purchased in Orlando that would one day become Walt Disney World.) But the story, written by director Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, is not about a vacation gone wrong or the idyll of spending time with Mickey and Minnie. Instead, it focuses on a young single mother and her 6-year old daughter, members of the so-called “hidden homeless” in Orlando and nearby Kissimmee. People like Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite) and her 6-year old child Moonee (another newcomer, Brooklynn Prince) live day to day and week to week, in shabby-looking motels that once tried to replicate the Disney parks’ style to lure in unsuspecting tourists. So Halley and Moonee live in the Magic Castle, located on the outskirts of the Magic Kingdom, and one of Moonee’s friends lives in the Futureland motel next door. And so on.

Moonee tries to act older than she is, gleefully cursing at adults with heedless abandon, but throughout the slice-of-life story, all she really wants is to have as fun a summer as possible. She’s blissfully unaware about her low-income circumstances, or at least unwilling to acknowledge those circumstances and let them get her down. Halley scrounges for cash, having lost her job as a stripper before the film begins and resorting to reselling wholesale perfume, swindling people out of theme-park tickets, and prostituting herself in her own room. Moonee is simply content to run around the marshy swamplands of Central Florida, slyly getting a few dollars to buy an ice cream cone, and spitting on nearby cars with a group of friends in similarly shaky situations.

Where Escape from Tomorrow largely treats its characters with contempt (the adults at least, as the two children mostly are used as props to further the slim story), The Florida Project bursts at the seams with empathy. Anyone familiar with Baker’s previous film, the wonderful 2015 drama Tangerine, would be unsurprised to learn that he’s turned a fittingly kindly eye to the lower rungs of the social strata of Central Florida. Another movie might treat Halley as a more pitiable figure, or Moonee as someone whose naïveté is mawkish. Another movie might treat paternalistic hotel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) as a possible savior, someone to help rescue the two women out of their dire straits, or someone who might plot to get them out of his motel for the trouble they heap upon him.

Not Baker or Bergoch. Bobby, whose own complex home life is hinted at during a couple brief visits by his son (Caleb Landry Jones), just wants to run the Magic Castle as best he can with as little trouble as possible. He’s willing to tolerate Halley and Moonee, especially the little girl, because he’s gifted (or cursed) with a kind heart. His willingness to help can only extend so far. (One of Dafoe’s best, most complex scenes is when Bobby confronts a likely pedophile at the motel, starting out friendly and ending with a level of rage that befits the actor’s past intense work.) And Halley’s ability to provide (or want to provide) a decent home for herself and her daughter can similarly only extend so far.

On the Sidelines of Walt Disney World

Escape from Tomorrow, for its flaws, is known primarily because it filmed on Disney property. However, the majority of The Florida Project stays squarely on the sidelines of Walt Disney World. In one early shot, Bobby stands in the hallway of his hotel, leaning against the railing and smoking a cigarette, as the indiscriminate booming of fireworks pops on the soundtrack. Later, Moonee and one of her friends, along with Halley, celebrate the friend’s birthday in a nearby grassy field to watch another evening edition of fireworks from the Magic Kingdom. Baker did not pull any tricks like Moore did, essentially smuggling in his crew and cast to stand against the themed lands of Disney for a warped morality play. Baker, unlike Moore, is a lot more careful in choosing how and when to film at the parks. The less it happens, the more powerful the parks’ presence are. There’s only one scene — really, a single handheld tracking shot — at the parks, and its emotional impact can’t be understated. You have to see it for yourself.

The agreed-upon lie at the core of The Florida Project is perhaps the greatest lie any out-of-state vacationer tells themselves (possibly unconsciously) when they travel to the Magic Kingdom. The world outside doesn’t matter when you’re enveloped in fantasy. Whoever works at the Magic Kingdom doesn’t have a life outside, responsibilities, families, bills, etc. The Florida Project, without ever becoming preachy, emphasizes how shaky that lie is as soon as you look beyond the berm of the Magic Kingdom or the other theme parks. It’s the same shakiness that cropped up when Hurricane Irma hit and vacationers appeared to prioritize their desire to spend time in the parks, instead of admitting that Cast Members might also be Central Florida residents in tenuous circumstances should the hurricane destroy their houses. The lives of Cast Members, and would-be Cast Members (Halley mentions that being hired at the parks would be a no-go for her), and their families get ignored by Disney’s guests, because noticing them would be too complex during a family vacation.

Nothing quite so disastrous as a hurricane happens in the heartbreaking finale of The Florida Project, which cements its status as one of the best films of the year. However, as is the case in Escape from Tomorrow, the cold cruelty of reality collides with a runaway fantasy. The former film, in general a very matter-of-fact story and one that is as oddly beautiful and alluring to look at as the iPhone-shot Tangerine did, does not shy away from the natural conclusion to a story where Halley lets Moonee run rampant around Kissimmee. There is but a vision of rescue, of going to Cinderella’s Castle in the hopes of finding a wish that will become a dream come true. The finale, like the rest of The Florida Project and Escape from Tomorrow, depicts another desperate agreed-upon lie. The truth would just hurt too much.

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