‘The Florida Project’ and American Poverty

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Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, focuses heavily on the ‘American Dream’ promise that we were all deceived into believing. Existing in a neo-liberal capitalist world seems much more like a dystopia in which most are left to suffer while a small percentage of society enjoys the benefits of the system.

Baker touches on this upsetting topic through his 6 year-old protagonist Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Through her he creates a unique and colourful world that goes beyond the stereotypes of poverty. At the beginning of the film, Moonee accidentally tilts her head back hard and bumps it against the wall, and she reacts to the pain with surprise as much as with anger. In this slight incident, Baker captures the innocence of a little girl who is still learning the basics of the real world and how untouched a child’s mind is. Seeing the world around her through her eyes is perhaps the best way to criticise the American Dream because while the audience watches her dreams and hopes get taken away from her, the innocence of a child still lingers on throughout the entire film. Indignities of class, motel culture in the ‘Sunshine State’, behavioural and socioemotional problems are studied in such a modern perspective that it never reaches the point of ‘poverty porn’; a term coined in the 90s that critiques the media’s use of images and stories that exploit the lives of societies poorest.

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In Baker’s view of motel culture, there are surprisingly no bullies, pimps or drug dealers around to cause nuisance. He pictures some sort of a neighbourhood of struggling adults and few children that are particularly good to each other, and yet, even that kind of optimistic perspective can’t hide the hardships the lower class has to face every single day to simply keep their daily life going.

What Moonee and Halley (Bria Vinaite) call home is a room in a neon purple welfare motel called Magic Kingdom, and though the name is tragically funny, it also represents the shadow of Disney World that is located only few streets away. The name “Disneyland” is never mentioned but we don’t have to see it to see the affects its consumer economy has on regular folks. Ironically enough, the title of the film has a history of being the first name of Walt Disney World while the park was still in its early development. Now the money-spinning Utopian dream determines how the money should flow in its area and that’s the reason why the audience gets exposed to so many fairy-tale-esque places like Magic Kingdom that was either built on false promises or honest aspiration.

Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who runs the Magic Kingdom (but does not own), is a hard-working guy caught between his duties and his sympathies. He thrives on the happiness of his guests but has a soft spot especially for Moonee and Halley. When he talks to them, he comes across as a well-intentioned dad rather than just a motel manager. He looks out for each of them; he scares off a possible child predator and defends Halley when she’s accused of stealing, but his desire to keep this little family intact is sullied from him by the film’s end. Halley and Moonee turn out to be just like most of the residents that belong to the motel’s history; there’s no spell to save them from their own destruction in the real world. The system has already failed them and many others like them.

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Despite their situation, Moonee is a precocious rascal who has a striking sense of humour for her age. She loves running wild and causing havoc with her friends from different motels but she’s also an awful influence on her friends; she’s hysterically rude, scams others to get free ice-cream or spits on new visitors’ cars for just some fun. When she sets a block of condos on fire, Halley acts as childish as she does and runs up to the burning condos to watch the show. Halley has no idea Moonee is the one who caused all that trouble but her reaction to this event shows how similar Halley and Moonee are. They don’t resemble each other just because they act the same, it’s because they’re both at a young age where they can still daydream about the future without taking their current situation into consideration.

Nonetheless, we never see them complaining even when they are homeless for 24 hours, when Moonee gets her iPad sold to pay the week’s rent or when the constant drone of helicopters ferries wealthy tourists while they can’t even have a proper meal. The reason why they flip a middle finger to the helicopters and get back to what they were doing is not solely because they don’t care, but it’s also because they have already adapted to the way the system they participate in works.

 The socioemotional problems emerge when the victims of government neglect choose to rebel rather than be complicit. However, the way they face the challenges life puts them through don’t always fit in with the society’s moral code so this becomes a never-ending battling circle for people like Halley and Moonee.

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Without going hard on the subject of indignities of class, Baker puts the lives of poor people —mostly women— on display and shows how exhausting hand-to-mouth existence can get. Halley is hardly ever put on a test for maternalism; Moonee is a healthy kid who’s unaware of her surroundings, but trying to make it till the end of the week to keep a roof over their head is draining enough for a mother. She babysits her friend’s kid to get a free meal and sells cheap perfume to Disney World-bound tourists with Moonee but that almost leads to her arrest. This happens to be the last draw before she turns to prostitution.

Baker is so cautious with how he tells her story so that the audience cannot judge her or question her parenting, even when it is revealed that she hides Moonee in the bathroom for the duration of her visitors. Their gradual downfall speeds up after her affairs though, as Child Services are eventually called on her. Knowing that she might lose Moonee, she wants to make up for the difficult times they had to go through together and free her from their never-ending financial anxiety. She takes her shopping and buys her toys, accessories and junk food, then they have open buffet lunch at a fancy hotel by lying about being a guest there although they both look like outsiders.

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Watching Moonee have fun and remain unaware of what’s about to become is where we forget about the existence of the clash of classes and focus on the simplicity of a child’s needs and what it takes for them be happy. Her happiness doesn’t last long though, Halley (or Bobby) are powerless against the forces of the law. Moonee, with a last dying hope, gets out of the hands of the service workers and finds her friend. Up until that moment, Baker exposes the lies behind Disney’s care-free world but in the last sequence, he doesn’t hold those kids back from using their imagination as a way of coping with the realities of the adult world. Dramatic shift in cinematography and music indicating that this is a fantasy sequence, he lets them rush to Disneyland because there are no real options left for Moonee to be allowed into that magic world beyond retreating into a child’s fantasy.

Baker doesn’t endorse any particular poverty policy proposal or make a political statement, but the films cast of real struggling people and brutal realism stands out from any political move. There is nothing more striking than listening to a child who’s unconscious of her family’s financial condition talking about having her own room and how she would decorate it. There will be no American Dream that can exist until same propaganda’s advertised luxuries are provided to the same country’s innocent children from all kinds of minorities, communities and class.

By Deren Akin

Deren is an American Culture and Literature student at Ege University. She’s tired of getting sarcastic questions about the “American Culture” part of her studies. Her comfort movies include Little Miss Sunshine, Up! and Love, Rosie. You can find her on Twitter @dereneakin and letterboxd @derenakn

2 replies »

  1. You are absolutely right about the very core of the issue addressed in THE FLORIDA PROJECT. I have seen it last year and felt it to combine a documentarian eye with ceaseless enpathy, showing hard facts as they were.

    Like

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