By Christopher Sharrett.
Occasionally, the Hollywood industry produces a film that notes the poverty flowing from the neoliberal order, as a “permanent underclass” becomes no more than journalistic jargon taken for granted with a shrug by those sectors of the public who need to pay attention. I think of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (both 2008 – not ironic that these two fine films appear as “the market” collapses) as two distinguished contributions to the cinema about the current age of poverty. There are other conscientious films in the same vein, often with a macho orientation, like Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace (2013). Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is an especially welcome edition, certainly for its focus on the lives of children, who affirm life and the need for companionship and play, no matter how dire the situation.
The film is set in the grimy periphery of Disney World in Orlando, Florida – journalistic accounts have it that Walt Disney called the proposed theme park “the Florida project” early in its development. Here, the title refers to a set of rundown motels turned into “welfare hotels,” places that apparently could not compete with the lavish Disney properties and were forced to make deals with the state to allow impoverished people to reside in them for fees that don’t exactly sound minimal. The Disney dream has become a “project” in the current public-welfare sense.
The film’s images of decay are unnerving – motels abandoned entirely, falling into ruined targets for pyromaniacs (a motel fire is a set piece); rugs, towels, and clothing drying on motel railings; circuits blowing under the playful ministrations of out-of-control children; elderly pedophiles prowling the cracked parking lots for stray kids. Such images are not so much offset than compared to other scenes of American grotesque, like a snack bar shaped like a giant orange, another rendered as a mammoth ice cream cone, a strip mall with a store called “Machine Gun World.” These last are shot Warhol-style, dead-on images emphasizing saturated color as well as the hints of death and depravity at the sites’ edges. Much is made about various “post-apocalypse” science-fiction, that grand conceit of the bourgeoisie holding that we will survive whatever holocaust awaits us. But that holocaust may be in slow motion in the worldview of works like The Florida Project.
Disney hegemony is everywhere: we see “Seven Dwarfs Blvd.” and a giant metal frame in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head. The motels where the residents smoke/snort/shoot dope and prostitute themselves are given cute names like “Magic Kingdom”; presumably the buildings were left over from an earlier phase of Disney buy-out and property consolidation, and no doubt will soon be demolished to make room for Disney expansion, leaving their tenants homeless – indeed, the characters of the film live tentatively. One can’t help conjure the image of Walt Disney, with his reassuring smile, his phony tales about frontier America (Davy Crockett), and his devastating effect on the great fairy tales – all this goes hand-in-glove with his hatred of unions, “coloreds,” long-hair types, and the like. Disney has been dead a long time, but his temperament and ambition have lived on in consistent sensibility of his corporate heirs.
Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the hard-pressed manager of the Magic Kingdom who juggles many tasks at once, like touch up the paint, take down pedophiles, fix the electricity, and keep his essentially decent residents out of jail. At first, the film seems driven by a cinema verite aesthetic, the camera at the level of several seven-year-old kids (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera). The children run about the buildings gleefully, determined to find joy in the rubble, making a nuisance of themselves that adults like Bobby take in good cheer. It’s noteworthy that the mothers who raise them are single, and that they seem to populate the film. They are not always so patient, having to carry the burden of raising their kids in very hostile circumstances. Bobby, at least, has a little down time.
Indeed, we expect a crisis at any moment, from the dangerous highway system to abandoned machinery to the aforementioned abandoned buildings, one of which the kids accidentally set afire. After their squeals of delight, they scurry back to their grubby hotel rooms, where they await punishment that never arrives, so unsupervised are they, so in disarray are public services, especially those assigned to poor districts like those with flop-house motels.
The film doesn’t ask the spectator to chuckle and coo at children and their antics. Instead, we face an admixture of various forms of the repulsive, the children forced to find niches therein. One of the mothers, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is a prostitute who places her daughter Moonee on the front lines of depravity-for-survival: Halley shoplifts, teaches her child pig-like manners at a fast food restaurant, has marginal notions of cleanliness, and at last makes one feel that the child daughter is the finer model for the mother, rather than the reverse.
The Florida Project investigates visually what America defines as exotic, in the age of neoliberalism and always. Pastels are meant to evoke the Caribbean, or at least some far-off place where cares vanish. One can’t help but think of Robert Venturi’s architecture tome Learning from Las Vegas: he actually thought we should learn something from that abomination of a town, whose fate seems predicted by Blade Runner 2049 (a film that expands little on its predecessor, in part because apocalypse has little sting given lowered expectations). But indeed corporate America has learned a great deal about bad taste as seduction, how to warehouse people in properties whose allure has run its course, and how America accepts all manner of repugnant excess as a sign of grandeur.
The Florida Project might be called a disaster movie, except the disasters are commonplace. The police arrive, along with the Department of Children and Family Services (some might see the latter as signs of “Big Government,” but any morally responsible person will think about, as sad as such moments may be, what would happen if they didn’t arrive?). The ending is to my mind a cop-out, yet interpretations may rescue the moment, and, finally, no rescue is required for one of the few films concerning itself so conscientiously with the horrors taken for granted in our age, as the free market decides for us what it means to be human.
Christopher Sharrett is a Contributing Editor of Film International. He has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University.