Mathilde Xiao explores the world of The Florida Project and the implications that it may have for our own
The Florida Project is a film about children, but it is not a children’s film.
Both playful and disturbing, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project tells the story of children living in a motel in central Florida. Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) are the residents the Magic Castle Motel, a purple and yellow castle-shaped building, situated in the shadows of the gated Disney World. Halley ekes out a living by selling perfume to tourists but eventually resorts to more extreme illegal activities to cover mounting bills. The audience follows Moonee and the other children living at the motel as they attempt to entertain themselves over the summer. They pass their time harassing motel guests, playing in nearby fields and asking strangers for money to buy ice cream. Despite the violence and poverty that surrounds them, they appear happy – finding joy in the simple and the perverse. Like the millions of children spending their summers at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the children living at the Magic Castle Motel roam and play freely in an enchanted, albeit less savoury kind of wonderland.
The Florida Project relays a garish and eclectic landscape of cartoonish structures, natural ecosystems and vast strips of highway. Kitschy buildings designed to resemble larger-than-life ice cream cones, fruit and mythical creatures dot the strips of highway and empty plots of land of what becomes a dystopian Disney World for Moonee and her friends. Isolation and poverty are key features of this Floridian landscape; and this draws parallels with Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016). Similar to Moonlight, colour palette is significant; a purple and yellow pastel scheme is exploited throughout the film to code childhood innocence and fantasy. However, the supposed images of innocence and fantasy only serve to contrast with the real life struggles the residents of the Magic Castle face – poverty, destitution, domestic violence, sexual predation and crime.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the Bengali film Pather Panchali (1955), a story about children in rural Bengal. Visually the resemblances are notable: the use of extreme wide-angle shots, and the camera’s frequent adoption of a child’s perspective. The plots also share obvious similarities. The children in Pather Panchali pass their days running through fields to the continual drone of passing trains and mooing cows. Likewise, the children in The Florida Project spend their days playing in a grassy field that houses cattle and serves as a take off point for helicopters with blaring engines. In both films diegetic sounds and visuals symbolise the surreal intersection of modernity and wilderness; wealth and poverty; urban and rural.
The fantasy-dystopian world of The Florida Project absorbs the viewer. Yet leaving the cinema in Central London with my £12.50 ticket, I wondered whether the experience offered by the film is also imbued with an element of poverty porn. The film’s ability to hold the audience’s attention may in part be due to the feeling one gains when given access to a window into a world rarely seen on screen. This sense of realness is reinforced by the handheld camera shots and what at times appears to be off-scripted dialogue and improvisation, which blur the lines between documentary and fiction. This sense of reality is furthered when one learns that Christopher Rivera, who plays Scooty, lived in a motel along with other minor character child-actors.
While the film is fiction, the harsh realities portrayed in The Florida Project are no doubt embroiled in truth, and this is worth remembering.
Featured image credit: MarketWatch