Orlando, Florida, USA is an odd place. There is the high density of consumer driven splendor of Disney World and its custom resorts, and yet that same opulence and entertainment proves lacking outside those curated arenas. Of the non corporate spaces and sites, they are bleached mercilessly by the sun and feel unusually at rest. This past year, I witnessed this ambiance first hand in late March/early April in the saccharine of Disney and the lackluster infrastructure support elsewhere for the common person. Even the movement of people found mostly in cars highlights a barrier. Attempts at walking along the sidewalks customary for urban dwellers feels atypical here and points to a presumed scarcity of resources to procure a vehicle by the perambulator. A lived-in sense of community is not fully formed because of the dislocation and disenfranchised working class. In a city filled with numerous Disney knock-off stores on the outskirts and swath of Uber and Lyft taxi drivers whose backstories conveyed dissatisfaction with being trapped in Orlando compared to their former US town or city, this is not a city of burgeoning, new ideas. They are all re-purposed.
In this brightly colored, jingle malaise, we find The Florida Project (2017) directed by Sean Baker. Baker followed up the independent award winning Tangerine (2015) with this slice of Orlando life. A cheap hotel fittingly named the Magic Kingdom keeps the main actions weighted to these rooms, corridors, neighboring stores, nearby helicopter pads, and fields. Running through all of these frames is youngster Moonee, portrayed by Brooklynn Price. She dashes here and there with such speed and objective as if not to let life catch up to her or her wayward mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Moonee is the defacto leader of the ragtag kids whose parents or guardians cannot afford childcare or find safer options while working or finding employment during the summer months. These summer months mean the kids do not have the structure, funded meals, and supervision of school. The hotel is $38/night and attracts clients that have poor credit and tend to survive week by week. To avoid the perception of slum housing, the manager Bobby (veteran actor Williem Dafoe) helps the guests check out for one day, stores their items elsewhere and then returns them to their room. Another literal facade is the newly applied purple paint on the Magic Kingdom hotel to hide momentarily the identity and use of the building.
The pacing of the film allows for harmless boredom in the kids’ wanderings and pursuits to become more problematic. Days stretch languidly for the adults too in their rooms watching inane television in the near dark while the sun hangs high. Entertainment and joy are so much more subdued than what is promised by the nightly Disney fireworks at the park of whose colors dance on the hotel. While Bobby does have gleeful exchanges with the wild kids and obstinate guests, Bobby cannot be enough of a positive force to stop the inevitable social ills about him.
The repetition of the days begins to alter gradually until there is no redemption for Halley. Suggesting that a few poor earlier decisions irreparably stymied Halley from participating in decent employment, and the audience does not have the full backstory which made this story more ubiquitous. In banal scenes, Baker wisely starts to illuminate how much complication and despair is outside the camera’s focus. The audience does not need to witness the compromises made to know what is happening. In the poetic absence of interactions of a child taking a bath, off-screen desperate measures are being undertaken and the consequences ensue.
For a willful spirit like Moonee, her pain and instability seem unfair. Bobby acts a stand-in for the audience in the efforts made to mentor, advise, and help, but remains unable to prevent the immediate outcome and disturbances. This uneasiness lingers after the film and demonstrates Baker’s proficiency as a storyteller.