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December 11, 2017

‘The Florida Project’ is a monument to the other side of paradise

(The Florida Project/ Facebook)

Few images loom larger over the American landscape than three circles, that, as they overlap together, form the shape of a mouse’s face. The spectral visage of Mickey Mouse makes a far more appropriate logo for the American project than the red, white and blue.

The Walt Disney brand is the American brand. Forget what you’ve heard about Washington D.C.; Orlando is our nation’s true capital. Like the lidless Great Eye of Sauron, its inescapable gaze is felt under the West Coast heat and the bitter New England frost. There’s a certain seductive charm to the Happiest Place on Earth. It promises eternal joy and merry contentment, yet its sinister underbelly reveals a compulsive directive to exploit its subjects and assimilate their properties into the fires of industry and empire.

No film has thus far captured this discrepancy more directly and acutely than “The Florida Project,” a thoroughly charming and lovely slice-of-life film filled with moments of warmth and wit along with indescribable pain and hopelessness.

Set a few miles away from Disney World, the star of the film is Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old girl who lives with her unemployed mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), at an extended-stay motel. In order to stave off eviction and homelessness, Halley and Moonee scramble together rent money every week by selling placebo perfume to hapless tourists. Far from a Disney princess, there’s fat chance of any Fairy Godmother arriving to whisk away Moonee’s problems in a puff of smoke with the wave of a magic wand.

Yet in a departure from many poverty narratives—marked by the characteristic condescension that upper-class twits so love to dwell in—“The Florida Project” chooses not to indulge in the fetishization of suffering.

While it is true that the film has an unmistakably sad, pained heart, there are sequences of unabashed joy and mirth. Low on concrete plot points, “The Florida Project” is something of a “hang out movie” where we follow the daily hijinks of Moonee and the friends who live with her in the motel. While that genre can easily veer into dull, aimless self-indulgence, the film avoids this pitfall by virtue of the utter charisma that Brooklynn Prince and her co-stars exude.

Filled with psychologically rich and memorable side characters, “The Florida Project” bursts with life at every corner. Although the iconic, glossy purple walls of the motel betray an urban fantasy-esque aesthetic, the way the film humanizes subjects so often reduced to merely depressing statistics shared on social media grounds it firmly in a type of social realism that recalls the work of Mike Leigh (which is high praise, considering he’s in the Nate Taskin Top Five Greatest Living Filmmakers List).

The most visible face, of course, is Willem Dafoe as the prickly, yet ultimately good-hearted hotel manager (and something of a surrogate father to Moonee). Bria Vinaite, meanwhile, gives an excellently sloppy, messy performance as Moonee’s mother. Her story captures a dilemma that many working class and poor mothers might recognize: “How can I prevent my child from ever knowing want when we live in a state of perpetual wanting?” There’s a crushing feeling of hopelessness once we realize that Cinderella lied to us: You can’t ‘bibbidi bobbidi boo’ your problems away.

The real marvel of “The Florida Project,” though, is the child actors. There’s a good reason why most child actors are incredibly grating and typically give rotten performances. In order to truly walk in another’s skin, a great actor requires a keen sense of empathy that allows them to occupy the headspace of another human being. Kid actors are usually terrible, because, generally speaking, children have not yet reached a state in emotional development where they’re capable of that kind of abstract insight.

Not the case with Brooklynn Prince and company, though! Moonee and her friends demonstrate a clear-headed understanding of the world that they live in, yet they never succumb to abject pessimism and jadedness. They’re still kids, with all the naivete and wide-eyed wonder at being that that implies, and that is a level of depth that many adult actors struggle to reach, much less pre-adolescent ones.

The director of the film, Sean Baker, continues to cement himself as a distinct voice in the independent film scene.  Like his previous film, “Tangerine” (a film that longtime Nate Taskin fans may recall was also received with glowing praise), “The Florida Project” has a wild, frenetic energy to it. Although it may not have the same technical adventurousness as the former picture (shot entirely on an iPhone), there’s plenty of genuinely breathtaking cinematic flourishes—particularly the sublime final sequence. The light of the Florida sun, like the Los Angeles sun of “Tangerine,” hangs brightly over its subjects. Sometimes it acts as a blanket, other times as a chain.

Although some might be understandably suspicious of the potentially-patronizing interest that Sean Baker—a cisgender white guy trained at New York University Tisch—takes in those who exist in the marginal fringes of society (three of his four films feature sex workers—one of the most demonized figures in American society—as central characters, and the other one is about an undocumented Chinese immigrant), there’s a sensitivity rife in his work that seems hard to fake.

A useful authorial contrast would be someone like (bear with me) Quentin Tarantino. Despite being a filmmaker who is neither Jewish, Black nor a woman, Tarantino is perfectly happy to indulge in the revenge fantasies (“Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained,” “Kill Bill”) of all of these groups that he doesn’t belong to. He crassly sees oppression as a means to bring out the most hyper-stylized gore possible. Baker is less of a voyeur and more of a vessel for these stories to be told.

The true evil that capitalism milks out of the impoverished is how it makes compassion a luxury. When you’re on the brink of eviction, looking after those outside your immediate circle simply takes more effort than you have time to indulge in. What makes “The Florida Project” a treasure is that it focuses on the little moments of kindness that people do for each other, no strings attached. The only thing wealth inequality successfully collectivizes is pain. Yet, that shared sense of pain is what unites people so that their humanity is reaffirmed.

Nate Taskin can be reached at ntaskin@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @nate_taskin.

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