When Walt Disney planned “the Florida Project” (the plan that would become Walt Disney World Resort) he deliberately located it in a state with cheap land and compliant politicians who would allow him to own land beyond the park.
Disney wanted more than his fantasy kingdom with themed hotels, he also wanted a corporate-controlled futuristic city where anyone who would not fit in with the magic kingdom's fantasy could be kept out.
The characters in The Florida Project definitely do not fit in with Disney's fantasy world. Their world, just outside the bounds of Disney's domain, near to the highways and helipads, is a world of gaudily painted but run down motels, knock-off souvenir shops, cash-in diners and ice cream stands. It is a world of what is sometimes called “hidden homelessness”.
Here, entire families have to scrape together $35 dollars a week for a cramped motel room to live in. The movie explores this world through the eyes of six-year old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her friends as they are tear around the Magic Castle and Future Land motels. It's the summer break, school's out, and Moonee and her gang spend it spitting on cars, shouting swear words they don't understand, cadging money for ice cream and getting under the feet of stressed-out adults. Yet, for the kids this is a magic kingdom even if it is circumscribed by the very real threats of the poverty around them.
In the end Moonee's summer idyll comes to an end as adult reality crowds in and starts to directly affect her. Moonee's young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) finds life is spiralling out of her control. She struggles to make the rent, she resorts to selling knock-off perfume to tourists. In her own way she's trying to provide for Moonee, but she's also immature and alienates the people who are trying to help her, including the weary but sympathetic motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).
When Hollywood makes films about people on the margins they often end up schmaltzy, with actors giving showy performances and making declamatory statements as the soundtrack swells. This film, with its cast of largely non professional actors, is the opposite of that kind of filmmaking. The story is told through a series of vignettes and through a child's eyes. It's funny, full of energy and gives you a very real sense of the place the characters live in. Much of the script is improvised and the performances are tremendous.
The movie also looks great. Unusually for a social realist movie, the director Sean Baker decided to go for a very lush beautifully-composed style. Most of it was filmed in 35mm, so the amazing colours of the buildings and T-shirts pop out of the screen with all brightness of an old MGM musical or indeed, a Disney animation. It's often filmed at the eye-level of the children, which gives the film a subtle fairy-tale take on how they see the world.
This is a film that shows rather than tells. It doesn't pass moralistic judgements on the choices the characters make. Neither does it claim that Halley and Moonee are representative of a type of person. The single parents are individual with their own ways of coping with their situations in different and differentiated ways.
A criticism that could be made of the film is that it does not provide a political manifesto against poverty. But the film is political when Moonee and her Mom flick a finger at the helicopters landing on the nearby helipad, bringing rich tourists in and out of Disney World. When we see the unfinished condos that stand empty since the 2008-9 crash, whilst the motels are full of people who need homes.
The Florida Project is full of humanity; the people living in the motel don't have much, but they share much of what they do have. They have created a network of solidarity and kindness. In the moments when we see that solidarity, the film gives us a glimpse of how the world could be remade.