New York's Broadway? Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue? Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard? Heck, I suppose I could make an argument for Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard — three blocks from my current home — with its annual place in our national spotlight for the Rose Parade.
But that's the thing. We know these streets from their abundant media appearances. If you wanted to determine which street more Americans have driven down in person than any other at some point in their lives, a strong case could be made for... Kissimmee, Florida's U.S. 192 — the street that leads to Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, perhaps the world's most popular single tourist destination.
The ubiquity of 192 in our collective experience — especially for theme park fans — gives power to Sean Baker's new film, The Florida Project, which is set almost entirely on the popular Orlando-area tourist strip. If you haven't yet seen it, this is not a movie about theme parks. It's not a movie about people who work in, or go to, theme parks. Except for a couple of brief, but important, moments, it doesn't even reference theme parks.
This actually is a movie whose themes and characters you've likely seen many times before, but those movies were set in places such as Brazil, India, South Africa, or any other of countless far-off locations that Americans often dismiss as the "third world." What makes this movie stand out is that this telling of that story takes place on one of the most-visited streets in America. That "third-world" poverty is not just overseas. The third world is here.
Although The Florida Project is a scripted film, Baker presents it in a documentary-like, cinéma vérité style. That can make getting into the movie a challenge. It look me nearly 20 minutes before I realized that this would not be a traditional, three-act, conflict-then-resolution narrative arc. There's no hero's journey here.
The movie opens with three children engaging in vile misbehavior. Why? The Florida Project will not tell you. There's no backstory provided, no context. It thrusts you into the life of a six-year-old girl (Brooklynn Prince) and her single mother (Bria Vinaite), who live in the Magic Castle Inn and Suites on 192. (It's the all-purple one.) Told mostly from the perspective of the child, The Florida Project offers a series of brief episodes that together reveal the poverty in which the pair, and their neighbors, live.
Some of the adults are employed, others not — well, at least not legally. And the children? The Florida Project offers one of the more observant illustrations of immaturity that I've ever watched in a theater. Ultimately, these are bored kids looking for adventure, simply mimicking the coarseness of the people raising them and hustling to get their needs met, including their need for companionship. (And ice cream.) They are not little adults, speaking truth to power in typically Hollywood-cliché storytelling. They're little kids, trying to get by in place where millions come to visit, but in circumstances in which no one should want to live.
The appeal of this place is made clear in Alexis Zabe's stunning cinematography, which casts Florida's cloud-flecked blue sky and the wild tourist-trapping decoration along 192 as strong supporting characters in the film. Still, theme park fans know that 192's best days stand long in the past. Disney has structured its vacation packages to keep more and more of its visitors on property. Universal Orlando has pulled the region's center of tourism gravity to the north, as newer, nicer hotels throughout the area have pulled millions of visitors away from the strip.
Into that vacuum have rushed the poor, drawn by cheap weekly rates at motels that no longer can count on tourists filling their rooms. (There is one really awkwardly funny scene that features a couple of newlywed Brazilians who didn't get that memo.) Do not look to The Florida Project for a social manifesto on poverty, however. This movie shows; it does not dictate. It offers no insight as to why any of these people ended living in a past-its-prime 192 motel, much less any solutions for how they might get something better from life.
The Florida Project does not even offer the satisfaction of a traditional ending. With an abrupt change in frame rate, music, and directorial style, the last moments of the film bring us into the literal realm of fantasy. Is this an expression of hope? Or a commentary on our need to escape from the discomfort of reality? That's up to you to decide.
Baker introduces his characters without introduction, perhaps knowing that we will first see them as caricatures. But as we spend more time with his depiction of these individuals, we discover their humanity, their humor, and their resilience. Prince and Vinaite are newcomers to the screen — Baker's team discovered Vinaite through her wacky, viral Instagram videos. Perhaps their inexperience in a production like this reinforces the shallowness of their characters — Vinaite's Halley is all id, at times as immature and impulsive as Prince's Moonee. But Baker elicits compelling performances from both. Halley's a clueless mom, but she loves her daughter as best as it seems she can. The Florida Project also casts Willem Dafoe against his usual crazy-villain type, and that realization provides one of the film's most satisfying moments.
To people speeding through on their way to the Magic Kingdom, the Krispy Kreme, or dinner at one of countless chain restaurants, U.S. 192 offers what looks like typically America exurban excess — the fruits of capitalism, available to all. But The Florida Project shows us who lives behind the facades we speed past — those to whom capitalism's wealth has not trickled down, for whatever reason. It shows us that these are not numbers nor caricatures, these are unique human beings — funny, bitter, hopeful, and frustrated.
"The Florida Project" was a codename for Walt Disney's original concept of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — a modernist ideal of a future community that addressed and solved the problems of everyday life. As theme park fans know, The Florida Project ended up growing into the Walt Disney World Resort, a wildly successful vacation destination... but hardly an ideal of urban planning. (Just ask anyone queued for a bus at Hollywood Studios at closing time.)
At its conclusion, The Florida Project brings us to the original "Florida Project." And the abruptness of that moment illustrates just how far 21st-century America has fallen from Walt Disney's 1960s idealism, at least for some of us. This might be The Florida Project, but, in reality, it's America's problem.Tweet
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