Poverty's Shadow: A Review of The Florida Project

“I can always tell when adults are about to cry.” - The Florida Project (2017)

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is a magical film—not just because it takes place literally next to Disney World, but because it manages to make all of us recall our childhood adventures.
It's reminiscent of a time in which we'd disappear into our backyards for hours on end, resurfacing only for lunch and dinner. It recalls that time when we were blissfully unaware of everything bad in the world.
But there is a bittersweet taste to the magic: surrounding Disney World, a park quite ironically called “the happiest place on earth,” there are motels served to accommodate the large stream of tourists back when Disney opened its doors in 1971.
Over the years, Disney expanded and built its own accommodations for tourists. The motels became the only means of residency (illegally so, because it’s not allowed to live in a motel), for people out of work and struggling to make ends meet.
It’s in one of these motels that Sean Baker sets his scene. While the people he observes generally fall into the category of what’s considered “white trash,” Baker always remains caring and empathic, never demonizing his characters; if anything, he criticizes the system of which they are victims.
We follow a young mother, Halley. We can assume she’s still in her 20s, living with her six-year-old daughter in the purple palace of a motel neighboring Disney World. It’s actually so close to Disney that a couple of tourists arrive there thinking they’re in the in the Magic Kingdom.
Although Moonee, Halley’s daughter, has never set foot in Disney World, her childhood isn’t free of magic and enchantment.
Her mother occasionally works as an exotic dancer, though she's currently unemployed. Hence, Halley comes up with scams like selling cheap perfume under the label of 'designer.' Sometimes, Moonee accompanies her and learns how to get free ice cream from strangers as she observes her mother.
She’s mostly carefree and blissfully unaware of her mother’s situation. For her, every day is fun and an adventure; she gets to roam freely around the area and eat junk food. The reality is her mother can’t afford anything else.
Though Halley might be considered a bad mother, we can tell that she really does love her daughter and does the best she can to provide for her. Moonee does, however, suffer from what is considered parental neglect: she's often alone for long hours, eating meals at the her friends' houses.
Halley isn't a bad mother because she wants to be; she’s just very much a kid herself. As you watch her, you almost want to protect her and shield her from the harshness of the world. One person does that to some degreeit’s Bobby, the caring motel manager.
Despite the fact that people aren’t supposed to establish residency at the motel, Bobby turns a blind eye. He even lets Halley pay her rent beyond its deadline and keeps an eye out for the children. The seemingly idyllic bubble they live in is threatened to burst, though.
The Florida Project is the film that put director Sean Baker in the spotlight, even garnering a multitude of award nominations. It’s not without reason, either. The film is incredibly realistic, to the point that it's at times difficult and painful to watch. But even when it explores harsh and depressing realities, the film itself never becomes depressing.
That’s because Baker never loses respect or empathy for his characters. Instead, he sees them as people and therefore human. There are far too many films about people who struggle economically that reduce their characters to their class, causing them to lose their humanity.
The Florida Project has a heart, and it's gutsy. The film does a remarkable job of existing between two worlds, that of the adults and that of the children. This is amazingly reflected in the cinematography. For the adults, the surroundings are colorful, but they lose their magic. They are far more aware of the literal cracks in the design; the worn-out and deteriorating buildings reflect the struggles in Halley’s life. Her reality is that she is raising her child in an old, bedbug-infested motel.
The more desperate she grows, the more claustrophobic the surroundings seem to become.
When Halley is talking to social workers who want to remove her daughter from her care, (in her desperation, she'd turned to prostitution to make money), Moonee observes from a distance. The only thing she sees is her mother's upset, as the conversation is out of earshot.

Through the course of the film, the children remain unaware of life's grittiest hardships. Every moment is magical for them. We go with them as they explore the larger-than-life world of colorful building and gift shops and ice cream stands, and we watch as they run through corridors, laughing and plotting their next adventures.
Baker has always striven to work with first-time actors. As a result, he always gets naturalistic and moving performances from his cast. It’s too good to be a mere coincidenceBaker really is a good director.
Baker cast Bria Vanaite, who’s mostly known from Instagram, for the role of Halley. She has a completely natural charisma, and even when Halley is rude or mean, we still feel for her. Her Halley isn’t just a rebellious young mom with blue hair. She never falls into a stereotype.

Willem Dafoe’s performance as Bobby has also earned rightful praise. For once, he doesn’t play a villain. Instead, he warms hearts as a kind, caring man who can’t turn a blind eye to the situations that he observes.
Bobby has a profound sadness to him. He’s torn between wanting to help and knowing that the situation as it is can’t go on. Dafoe delivers a calm yet commanding performance.
But it is Brooklyn Prince who shines the brightest. Mesmerizing to watch and utterly likeable in her contagious enthusiasm and energy, she has a charm that comes across as delightfully spontaneous. She also seems to have a natural understanding of her character and a seemingly effortless ability to reflect emotion, and that shows true talent.
The Florida Project has been heralded as one of the best films of 2017, and rightly so. It’s one of the most humane and empathic looks at people struggling economically and at the preconceptions that people have about them.
There’s an almost perverse irony in the fact that such a situation can exist next to Disney World, where tons of tourists visit every year to be happy and have fun. Such individuals are often unaware that people like Halley even existor, if they know, they either pretend to not see it or they look down upon them.

Underneath all the genuinely happy moments and bright pops of color, there is a stinging and emotional critique of how we see and treat poor people as a society. This movie stays with you.

By Ayla Van Damme

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