The Florida Project Review

At my screening of The Florida Project during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, director and co-writer Sean Baker directed a questioner to Google the film’s title to learn what it means. “It’s been harder […] to Google it since the film came out,” he admits. “Now we’re the one that comes up on Wikipedia first, which is weird.” That’s saying something because the original Florida Project refers to none other than Disney World itself, the epicenter of the Sunshine State under whose shadow Baker’s film (which our own Chris Evangelista called one of the best of 2017) takes place.

In 1966, shortly before he passed away, Walt Disney created a documentary laying out his vision for “the Florida Project,” a utopian community where free enterprise could cure the ails of the modern city. (Watch for yourself on YouTube, while you can, to marvel at his ultimately unrealized dream.) In his original vision for EPCOT, Disney envisioned a city without slums or ghettoes. Now, half a century later, the site of his idyllic metropolis showcases some of the starkest inequality in America, where children like the ones in The Florida Project grow up in motels along the same roads that others take to the Magic Kingdom.

But in my interview with Sean Baker, we focused less on this ironic contrast and more on the deep reserve of humanity and empathy shown for the people who dwell there.

How are all the people and the locations doing after Irma?

Yes, thank God, everybody is safe. It hit most of northern Florida the hardest. Orlando, the agencies we were working with had their power out for 4-5 days. The producers and a lot of the cast and crew members who live in Miami are still dealing with it, but nobody was hurt which is the most important part.

You said at TIFF to Google the title to learn more about what it’s referring to, and I think I found what you meant – was it a reference to EPCOT and Walt Disney’s original vision for founding Disney World?

Yeah, the fact that it’s what they called that area as they were buying up the land to bring the parks there.

At what point did you discover that film or the idea?

It was actually my co-screenwriter [Chris Bergoch], he knows Disney inside and out, he has a deep love for Disney. His mother actually lives down in the Kissimmee-Orlando area, and he was the one who came up with the title as well.

Although this is obviously a national problem, a lot of journalists and news organizations have been focused on it [the housing crisis] in that area for the same reason that we do. The juxtaposition of having kids growing up in motels right outside “the happiest place on earth.” It was something I honestly did not know about was a national issue when I first started reading the news stories about this back in 2011.

The numbers are tough because a lot of these families and individuals are transient. It’s hard for the census bureau to come up with accurate numbers but there were times when they said that up to 5,000 children could be living along Route 192 in the motels. And this was something that struck me as so incredibly sad. I felt it was something I definitely didn’t know about, and I’m sure a lot of people didn’t know about it, so it was something, through dramatizing, we could shed a light on.

And it was actually something we were planning to do before Tangerine [Baker’s prior feature], and we just couldn’t find financing for it. We returned to the subject after Tangerine opened the doors for us and helped us find financing, we found very little had changed. There was still the same number. We started doing our research and taking trips there, meeting children who were 6-7 years old and spent their entire lives in the motels. This is all obviously a result of the ’08 recession. It was still timely and something we should still cover.

But Tangerine, thank God it happened first, because in many ways it dictated the style of the movie. It would have been a different movie because – well, the biggest thing is that Brooklynn (Prince, the film’s 7-year-old star who brings the character Moonee to vibrant life) wasn’t even alive – the style would have been slightly different.

In what way?

I think with Tangerine we were taking that gamble – it was a risk – that we could tell the story in a comedic fashion to attract an audience and shed light on an issue. I don’t think I would have been that heavy-handed with the comedy unless Tangerine had worked. I felt Tangerine worked and did its job to a certain degree, it had people finding this film and really loving the humor aspect of it. Then, of course, leaving people with a different way of looking at the trans women of color in that area and perhaps wondering about their struggles and what they could do to help.

I get messages to this day – yesterday I got a beautiful one – from people on Twitter and Facebook and other social media where it’s like, “I connected so much with Alexandra and Sin-Dee and even though I never thought I’d connect with somebody from that world, I love them.” There was something that obviously worked, so we took that same approach with this film.

I’d always wanted to make a Little Rascals type of movie, and I didn’t know how far to go with it in terms of how much to focus on the comedic adventures of little kids. But I think once Tangerine worked, I was confident we could go full-out. And then I looked at The Little Rascals and realized they did this 70 years ago, this is not new. The Little Rascals was set against the background of the Great Depression, the characters were living in poverty. It’s just that it wasn’t focused on it. It was focused on what makes childhood universal. We’re all laughing at kids because we see ourselves in them, we remember our childhood.

We are again approaching this in a way where comedy is first and foremost the entertainment medium to capture audience’s attention, then capture their love for the characters and then hopefully capture their interest in the subject ultimately.

Is there a certain amount of training you have to do to find that comedy? I’ve noticed over time that your films have become more attuned to the humor and moved further away from the tragedy, though I’d never say your films were “poverty porn.”

I guess so. I still look back at even Take Out [Baker’s 2004 sophomore feature, a neorealist drama set in a community of illegal Chinese immigrants in New York], there’s a lot of humor in that. There was definitely that all along, but I think it became a real conscious decision of ours to inject as much humor as possible because of the fact that it just grounds it in reality more when you do so.

When you speak of “poverty porn,” it’s often so weighted down in melodrama, and there’s not an ounce of humor in some of those films. And that’s so unrealistic. That’s incredibly unrealistic. In our most desperate times, people going through true hardships use humor to cope. And then on top of that, there is always humor in behavior. To not show it is not only untruthful – you have to look at it from an ethical point of view, why are you trying to do this?

It’s supposed to be based in some kind of realism, but there’s no truth there. It’s actually disingenuous and condescending to the subjects because you’re not treating them as humans. A lot of “poverty porn” takes these characters and sanctifies them. It makes them into saints. And then suddenly you’re like, “They’re not real. They’re not human. They’re an angel.” Which is bullshit, and I can’t even connect with this person. The whole goal is thrown out the window.

The goal – with Tangerine, I wanted the audiences to love those two characters [transgender sex workers in Los Angeles] enough where they go home at the end of the night wondering about the real ones out there. Same thing with this, when you’re driving home you think about the real Moonees and the real Halleys [Moonee’s single mother in the film] – but you can’t do that if I made her the perfect mom. If she was the perfect mom and a victim to the system, that would be a major fail. It wouldn’t have the effect we needed.

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