The Florida Project: A Stunning Portrayal of Income Inequality

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is one of the most moving films of the year. It centers around a run-down motel (ironically called “The Magic Kingdom”) where families live paycheck-to-paycheck just outside The Happiest Place on Earth. Baker’s characters live with constant reminders of the wealth around them, but are occupants of a separate world entirely. What follows is an examination of the vicious cycles that keep people in poverty, and how they learn to cope with them.

Baker’s stunning debut, Tangerine, also deals with marginalized people, outsiders who desperately work to find a place for themselves. His films, however, never fall into the trap of presenting these people as spectacles for our amusement. What we are left with is ultimately a celebration of the depth of human experience in the face of hardship. Baker masterfully synthesizes the plights of people on the fringe of society for a general audience. His characters are not treated with pity or revery, but presented to as they are, without any judgment being passed down upon them.

The film blurs the line between mockumentary and drama. Very little music is used and the camera mimics with jerky momentum the movement on screen. Rather than being told through the eyes of the adults as one might expect, the story is told through the eyes of their children. While their parents struggle with the ins and outs of daily existence and the repercussions of the mischief their children stir up, the kids are still just kids, and this allows them to view their world as full of limitless possibilities. The stand that they beg for change outside of becomes the place where they get free ice cream, spending the night at a neighbor’s apartment out of need becomes a sleepover, and the motel itself really does become a magic kingdom of sorts in which the kids play games and meet their closest friends.

Though the adults’ perspectives are littered with the real world stresses of financial instability, and the complex array of undertones and tension that pepper adult relationships, they also find their own forms of escapism: sharing cigarettes and stories, going dancing and lounging by the pool, spending time with their children, and looking out for one another. The adults watch over each other’s children, supply one another with food, and spot each other extra cash for rent when they can. Tensions rise and fall, sometimes binding them closer together and sometimes viciously snapping, but all in all we are presented with a community wherein people rely on the kindness of others.

The film is bittersweet because the act of escapism is not enough to keep its protagonists from falling prey to crippling debt and other problems that overwhelmingly compound, but the escapism itself is valuable. The Florida Project is ultimately a story about the versatility of the human spirit, but not an entirely fictitious one. It is the story of many Americans who don’t usually have their voices heard, who very rarely see media that reflects their experiences.

7-year-old Brooklynn Prince is a gifted actress and carries the film beautifully in the starring role of Moonee. Her mother is played by Bria Vinaite who was discovered by Baker through Instagram. She has no previous acting experience but the performance she delivers is visceral and enchanting. The choice to use unknown and in some cases, unprofessional actors for most of the roles works in the film’s favor, making it easier for the audience to blur the lines between fact and fiction, making it a totally immersive experience. The Florida Project is a labor of love, Baker treating his cast, characters and subject matter with respect and empathy every step of the way, and it would be a damn shame to miss it.

 

Images Used: 1, 2, 3, 4