Sean Baker’s latest, The Florida Project, avoids being an exploitative portrayal of poverty by empathetically portraying its characters’ daily struggles, and giving time to a variety of perspectives. Read our interview with Sean Baker on Tangerine here.
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Films about the poor can be, and often are, condescending, patronizing, or exploitative. Particularly in the pursuit of realism, filmmakers tend to get lost in exploiting their subjects, exoticizing class differences, and often placing blame on the subjects themselves for their situations. Think of Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, the happy poor characters in Disney films, or (arguably) the films of Harmony Korine. But The Florida Project reminded me more of Mike Leigh’s Meantime (1984), another ordered but compassionate film about the desperate life of the working-class and below. Both films are less about poverty itself, than about what pushes these people forward and what holds them back. The Florida Project seems to argue that the best way to represent the systemic nature of poverty is to imaginatively remake the experience in a way that is unfamiliar to us, giving a new window into these characters’ volatile lives.
Baker’s film is about life lived on the margins at a mauve Technicolor nightmare motel not far from Disney World in Florida. The film is loosely plotted, structured into vignettes of playfulness and danger. Willem Dafoe is electric as Bobby, the exasperated but kind motel manager. But the real stars are the six-year-old inhabitants of the motel, led by Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). She’s a precocious and foul-mouthed adventurer, whose mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) is unemployed and stiff-necked. They vacillate between being friends and enemies. Halley is generally doing her best despite being caught in an unforgiving system — and occasionally giving in to her worst impulses. Their turbulent relationship is at the heart of the film, expressed in successive waves of affection and devastation.
The Florida Project feels somewhat suspect for the first half of its running time, seeming to luxuriate in the youthful exuberance and ignorance of these children while ignoring the horrors of classism. It’s truly irrepressible, following their mischievousness as they’re able to find some kind of happiness in their fantasy worlds of mayhem. To keep up with Moonee and her friends, the camera seems to place us within their heads, such as when they terrorize an abandoned house: the cathartic effect for them is likewise felt by us. In other words, it seems at first as though we, too, will be able to appreciate their precarious living situations only in the fringes of the narrative, able to ignore it, just as the children only occasionally admit an awareness of their class (like Moonee overhearing her mother’s sex work in the other room).'Both films are less about poverty itself, than what pushes these people forward and holds them back.'Click To Tweet
But the film eventually confronts head-on how the poor are treated in American society: as a nuisance, as an institutional liability, as a peripheral element meant to be contained and controlled. Eventually, a whirlwind of Child Protective Services, the police, the foster care system, and investigators take control over their lives, like a mother impatiently cleaning up her child’s mess. By keeping us within the perspective of Moonee and the other kids, we (like them) are able to use our imaginations and find tiny bits of beauty amid the horror, but they can’t escape the truth of their circumstances forever. It becomes increasingly clear that this world is not sustainable. Halley struggles to make ends meet by selling herself and perfumes; her closest friend turns her back on her after an unfortunate moment of violence. With fewer outlets of support to turn to, Halley and Moonee find themselves in a dire reality.
Many films about the poor individualize the experience by giving a glimpse at a certain character or family’s situation, but The Florida Project highlights how legal and social systems perpetuate poverty. Several times, Bobby makes concessions to Halley and other residents, and Baker lingers over his protective tendencies. He runs off an older pedophile from the premises in a scene that is both funny and haunting; he solves the problem, but only temporarily. He does, however, take a hard-line stance on Halley’s sex work by forbidding it, certainly protecting her and himself from legal problems — but ultimately cutting off her main source of money.'Baker’s film is about life lived on the margins at a mauve Technicolor nightmare motel.'Click To Tweet
Bobby also acknowledges and sympathizes with the cyclical nature of their poverty. Though he seems to have their best interests in mind, he nonetheless helps to perpetuate their situation by virtue of his position and service. At one point, to appease Floridian laws, Halley and Moonee must move all their belongings to a storage space for 24 hours and spend the night in a neighbouring hotel: they cannot be in the same room for a full month lest they become legal residents. When the new owners of that hotel refuse to honour an old deal Bobby had set up with the previous owners — that would let Bobby’s tenants stay the night for a discount — Bobby offers to pay the difference. Baker depicts these class-related indignities not to distance himself and the audience from the characters’ experience, tut-tutting the injustice, but to highlight Halley’s and Moonee’s justifiable rage and frustration at their daily lives; they must make this same trip once every month.
The Florida Project uses Moonee’s story as a window into the systemic repercussions of class persecution, toying with her perspective. Her eyes tell us that this routine has lost any possibility for fantasy. Much has been said about the film’s dreamlike ending, in which Moonee and her friends escape into Disney World. It’s a tonal and stylistic shift from the realism that came before. It’s wildly jarring, precisely because it is destined to be a short-lived and cathartic getaway from the grind of Moonee’s reality. Baker deliberately presents the scene as a washed-out fantasy, shot with an iPhone (the rest of the film is shot on 35mm) with a sweeping informality that feels buoyant, yet a feeling of inevitable comedown lingers after. Baker at once places us within Moonee’s experience of the sequence as a romantic illusion, and signals to the audience that the moment is tragically ephemeral.