The Florida Project

December 15, 2017
Living the high life in Orlando
Living the high life in Orlando

Jean Baudrillard – not long ago the most fashionable French philosopher in the English-speaking world – once suggested that the purpose of Disneyland was to make Americans believe the rest of the United States was not Disneyland. He phrased it a little differently, but the gist of his argument was that life in America had cut its ties with reality and become a mere simulation. I’m only sorry Professeur Baudrillard died before the advent of the Trump era.

Sean Baker’s highly original movie, The Florida Project, presents a flea pit of gritty reality in the midst of tawdry American fantasy. A film with the most rudimentary of plots, it’s never less than gripping in its portrayal of a poverty-stricken underclass perched on the edge of an historic tourist attraction.

Disneyworld is not just something to do in Orlando, FL. it is the most visited amusement park in the world, generating economic activity in the billions. It’s hardly surprising that the Disney aura has seeped out into the surrounding suburbs. Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberley Prince) and her mum, Halley (Bria Vinaite) live in a purple coloured motel called The Magic Castle. Her friend, Jancey (Valeria Cotto) resides with her grandmother in an equally shabby pile called Futureworld.

When Moonee and her friends go out to play – or rather, make trouble – they wander past Seven Dwarfs Lane, an imposing dome called Orange World, and a gift shop loomed over by a gigantic wizard. Their usual destination is a fast food restaurant where they cadge free food from the back door, or an ice cream joint where they beg money from tourists.

It may sound grim, but because we see this environment through the eyes of Moonee and her friends it has a strange, tacky magic. It is the only world these kids have ever known, and kids have a knack for adaptation that poor, disllusioned adults cannot share.

The Magic Castle is aptly described as “a welfare slum” by a new bride from Brazil, whose husband has botched the hotel bookings and checked them into the wrong part of town. The residents are the long-term unemployed and unemployable, or those like Halley’s friend, Ashley (Mela Murder), who earn a pittance from low-paying jobs. They could be divided into those who strive to maintain some vestige of dignity, and those who have simply let go. Moonee knows them all: the man who’s always getting arrested; the woman who thinks she’s married to Jesus; or Gloria, an aging vamp who insists on sunbathing topless.

The king of the Magic Castle is Willem Dafoe’s Bobby – a kind-hearted manager who can get tough when necessary. He frogmarches a creepy old pervert off the premises and evicts a drug dealer, but seems to have infinite patience with Halley and Moonee, who are forever breaking the rules and running late with the rent.

For Dafoe, who is often seen playing some desperate criminal, this is one of his most nuanced and endearing roles. His compassion for the residents, his dedication and watchfulness are constantly surprising.

Of all the denizens of Bobby’s kingdom, Halley is one of the most recalcitrant. With blue hair, abundant tats and piercings, she seems to have never outgrown her teenage years. Halley lives a hand-to-mouth existence, buying perfume wholesale and selling it on to tourists. When that avenue closes she turns to casual prostitution, putting her daughter into the bath while she services clients.

Foul-mouthed, quick to take offence, utterly devoid of any sense of parental responsibility, Halley is bringing up Moonee on a diet of trash TV, soda pop and plain pizza (the kind with pepperoni is too expensive). It’s a social worker’s nightmare, but also a loving relationship. Being hardly more than a child herself, Halley treats her daughter like a pal. It’s touching, and terrible, to watch.

We know this isn’t going to end well, but it should be more alarming that so many people in the Home of the Brave and Land of the Free, spend their entire lives in abject, hopeless poverty. As The Florida Project appears in cinemas, in order to pay for his tax cuts President Trump is proposing to slash US$200 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The scheme was brought in under Nixon in 1969, and today, 43 million Americans depend on food stamps – that’s roughly one eighth of the population.

Baker makes it clear that if it wasn’t for charity handouts of bread and other basics, Halley and Moonee would be starving. Yet this film is not Les Miserables in the suburbs of Orlando, but a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in extremis. The Florida Project may be replete with poverty porn and bleak irony, but it serves as a reminder that all those depressing statistics also have faces and names. One thinks of Tacitus’s famous line about the depredations of war, “they make a desert and call it peace”. These sentiments might be framed for Baudrillard’s America: they make a slum and call it a magic kingdom.

The Florida Project
Directed by Sean Baker
Written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch
Starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Kimberley Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Mela Murder, Josie Olivo
USA, rated MA15+, 111 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 December, 2017