The Florida Project
Sean Baker, the writer-director, wanted to draw attention to what is called the “invisible homeless.” That means people who are not actually living on the street, but in budget motels. They have a roof over their heads, running water (and, often, running bedbugs), and a place to take a dump, but are only a week away from homelessness. Some of these children are growing up in the mighty shadow of Walt Disney World in Orlando and Kissimmee. The cheapest rooms at WDW are about $125/night. That’s the budget resorts. But scattered around are places like the Magic Castle (a real place, where this was filmed) where you can stay for $35/night. That’s over $1000/month, except in February. Imagine how you would have to scramble to come up with that nut if you don’t have a job. And that’s not counting food, which you will mostly buy at fast food joints, since hotplates are discouraged in these places.
I’m of two minds about this one. Baker has chosen to show a young mother who is instantly dislikeable, and her young daughter, who I had to struggle to like, too. The mom dances at strip clubs sometimes, and runs a few scams here and there, but otherwise seems nothing but a loud-mouthed, in-your-face, screeching nightmare of a woman who always blames everyone but herself for anything that goes wrong. I pretty much hated her, and hated her even more as the thing went on.
The 7-year-old daughter is running wild with a few friends. Mom really can’t be bothered to look after her. And you will not be surprised to learn that at the end Social Services has shown up to take the girl and put her in foster care. And about goddam time, I felt. And of course the little girl is devastated. Whose fault is that, huh? The State, or the cunt?
Baker has deliberately chosen to show just about the worst possible example of the hidden homeless to make his case. I just can’t understand that. I understand that if the mother had been a really nice girl who was struggling to make ends meet it would have been nothing really new … but at least I could have felt sympathy for her. So what’s the deal with making this all about a horrible person? Is he challenging us to feel empathy in spite of her awfulness? Well, I was challenged, all right, challenged right out the door.
But there is good here. It was shot from a script, but Baker encouraged improv, and goes for a cinéma vérité style, and that is pretty well done. The Florida scenery and roadside attractions are weird and wonderful. WDW seems to be surrounded by a crust of the most ridiculous businesses you could imagine.
And the acting is very good. Willem Dafoe is the longsuffering manager of the Magic Castle, whose owner has just sunk $20,000 into painting the exterior a fairly hideous shade of purple instead of fixing the damn ice machine. But best of all is little Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, the kid. She is uncanny. There is a scene where she has to start out fairly calm, and then slowly dissolve into tears. It is done in close-up, and in the DVD extras we see that, as usual in a movie, she is totally surrounded by people just out of camera range. And the tears begin to flow. There is no way to fake that. She said that she just thought of sad things.
The ending confused some people, but I liked it a lot. Moonee and her best friend flee the cops and social workers and the next thing we know they are running up Main Street, USA, toward Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. It was a perfect fantasy, the kids leaving this harsh world and dreaming of living in the Happiest Place on Earth, which is a million miles from the Magic Castle.
The Magic Castle, by the way, doesn’t look all that bad. I’m sure there are worse. The film crew pretty much took the place over for some weeks, and Baker praised the owners. And that WDW scene … I was amazed, didn’t think that Disney would allow shooting on their property … and they didn’t! Baker and company sneaked the shot, using an iPhone! Which was perfectly legal, but would have been prevented had the top execs known. Disney is extremely protective of their brand.