The Florida Project: A Review and Discussion of its Disney Elements
Every year there are films that get past me on their trip through big screen release even though I’m aware they exist and identify them as something I’d like to see. This year Sean Baker’s The Florida Project was one such movie. Thankfully, this entrancing and heartbreaking slice of life focused on a six-year-old girl’s adventures in and around the low budget motel where she and her mother are living did grab an Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe and thus ended up a high priority once it became available for rental yesterday. Unlike some of the other films I’ve been main-lining over the past several weeks, The Florida Project is already taking up space in my brain for several reasons.
For those of you who haven’t seen the film yet, I’m going to begin this article with a spoiler-free review of The Florida Project and some information about it that shouldn’t interfere with your appreciation of it once you do sit down to take it in. Not that the movie contains any really unexpected twists, but I am sympathetic to some moviegoers who want to go into a viewing experience with only the information needed to understand its context and whether or not they want to see it. I’ll be providing that right up front, and then I’ll be going into a bit more detail after what I hope will be a prominent enough clue, and this will include an examination of the movie’s relationship with Walt Disney World and some elements of the film that might be considered spoilers to some.
Writer/director Sean Baker made a small splash in 2015 when it was learned that his film Tangerine had been shot entirely on a few different iPhone 5s. Of course it wasn’t as simple as that. Baker and company had also used attached lenses, stabilizing equipment, and advanced color saturation and editing software to make the project look as good as it did. But this still left the movie’s budget with much more wiggle room for other expenses than if they had used more traditional film cameras. The stars of Tangerine were transgendered and transitioned women. Baker is also somewhat known as the creator and writer of the short-lived television comedy Greg The Bunny, which starred Seth Green and a hand puppet.
This non-traditional approach to casting appears again in The Florida Project, which mixes professional actors such as Willem Dafoe (Platoon, Mississippi Burning, Spider-Man) and Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out, Twin Peaks: The Return, X-Men: First Class) with unknowns and non-actors to most naturally populate the world of the low rent motel where most of the action of the movie takes place. The little girl who is the lead, Brooklynn Prince, had only appeared before in Robo-Dog Airborne, and her mother is played by Bria Vinaite who had no previous film credits and Baker found through Instagram posts. Other smaller roles were filled by the actual inhabitants of the Magic Castle motel.
Paired with Baker’s naturalistic and embedded use of the camera, this resulted in a sense of the viewer being a member of this community and increased empathy for the situations it is depicting. By primarily focusing on the daily adventures of six-year-old Moonee and her young friends, we are pulled along in both appreciating and judging the adults and shallow commercialism around them. The camera movement and use of color saturation are both excellent, allowing for equal measures of realism and artful composition without ever detracting from the audience’s immersion in the events of the film.
Despite generally strong reviews and a bushel of awards coming from a variety of sources, The Florida Project only managed to swing a single Oscar nomination, this one for Best Supporting Actor for Dafoe, in one of his warmer and more workman-like performances. As the one actor we are sure to recognize, he serves as a very effective anchor for audiences and we are forced to hold onto him as a trusted figure when there is nobody else to turn to. Dafoe’s subtlety and full investment in the context Baker has placed him shows through most of the film and is invaluable to the final product. I would argue that The Florida Project deserved more attention from the Academy than it got, perhaps even squeezing into the Best Cinematography and Best Picture categories if I had my way. It is one of the films of 2017 that I can easily imagine myself remembering the year for ten or twenty years down the line. It’s a movie that crept under my skin and made me feel it as something more than a technical or aesthetic experience. Obviously, it’s also the kind of movie that left me wanting to talk to other people about it. If you’re a filmgoer with both an appreciation for the visual art of the medium and the willingness to divert from traditional three act story structures, I can give you a very firm recommendation for The Florida Project.
The Disney Question (spoilers)
The primary themes of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is the gap between the idealized fantasy and consumerism as best exemplified by nearby Walt Disney World and the lower class population living in its pixie-dusted shadow. As most anyone who follows this blog knows, I am definitely a fan of a lot of the product that the Disney company has provided us with over the years. I own several of the movies, I visit the theme parks, and I even shoot video of myself there to share with anyone who cares to see it. But unlike some other members of the Disney community of fans, I am more than open to whatever valid criticisms can be brought up against the mouse, and The Florida Project makes no bones about the contrast between fantasy and reality in the land of the Magic Kingdom.
The very title of the film is a reference to the intended technological and societal ideals that Walt Disney himself meant to pursue when his company began buying up land in central Florida back in the 1960s. While a second castle park similar to California’s Disneyland was always a part of the plan, it wasn’t what Walt was most motivated by. His vision was for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (if you’re following along you might notice that spells “Epcot”). Prior to his passing in 1966, Disney shot an explanation of what he called “the Florida project,” including its positioning near convenient highways and its eventual ambition at creating an ideal futuristic town in which people could actually live that would serve as a shining example for organization and the integration of top technologies for modern living.
Now that’s mid-century optimism if I’ve ever seen it. Clearly, the title of The Florida Project not only echoes one of the names Disney gave the work the company was doing near Orlando, but also expresses that the main characters of the movie are, in fact, effectively living in a ‘project’ as do many lower income people across the country. This one just happens to be painted purple and located within a stone’s throw of the most visited tourist destination in the world. Let’s look at that purple color, shall we?
Being a Disney nerd, when the title card showed up on a painted purple wall, my antennae went up. It’s the sort of reference that only people who have spent way too much time looking at Disney stuff on social media would be likely to notice. At some point a large blank wall in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland was painted a pale purple color and people started making a habit of taking their pictures in front of it. I’m not sure why this became such a thing, but trust me, it did. From that point forward it became clear to me that one of the things Baker was doing was showing his lower-income characters taking refuge in less romanticized versions of things inside Walt Disney World property.
Not long into the film, a couple shows up at the Magic Castle, surprised that the address they gave their cab driver hasn’t taken them to an official Disney World resort hotel, but instead to a largely unappealing motel that bears only a passing resemblance to the kind of fanciful locations they expected. The disappointed newlyweds include a Brazilian wife whose family has visited Walt Disney World many times over her lifetime. While this is another pretty good reference (the resort is very popular with Brazilian tour groups), the story doesn’t pass the smell test for me. If the wife had been there so many times (and she knows the names of the top resort hotels off the top of her head to prove it), how did she not ask ahead of time where they were staying? It’s the kind of information no Disney parks fan would leave to chance.
The bright and exaggerated aesthetic meant to attract the tourists coming to central Florida for the theme parks and similar theming is highlighted throughout the film. Some of Moonee’s friends live next door at a motel that suggests shades of Tomorrowland.
Less specific to Disney are this gift shop that calls Harry Potter to mind, and this store featuring everything orange-related. The Florida orange growers did act as sponsor to the Enchanted Tiki Room when the first park opened in 1971 and the ‘little orange bird’ mascot makes an appearance in the film as a stuffed animal Moonee is holding a couple of times.
The characters are actually living here, with Disney almost hanging over their heads as a reminder of what they can and can’t have. They walk past off-brand gift shops with the company’s name on them and highway signs showing the way towards the vacation kingdom.
Although they can’t afford to visit the parks themselves, they find other ways to take advantage of their location or to approximate the experience. Instead of going to Animal Kingdom, they walk to a nearby field to see the cows and call it a safari. We get a little bit of the Pleasure Island from Pinocchio experience as the kids wander into abandoned homes and destroy everything in sight. They celebrate a friend’s birthday by going to a spot nearby where they can see the fireworks from one of the parks.
When they’re coming up short on money Moonee’s mother sells stolen magic bands to an unsuspecting tourist. This is actually something that happens, but the person who has purchased stolen bands is in real danger of having them deactivated either before or after using them for the first time, since this is typically the first or second thing a person does when they find out their bands are missing.
At the end of the film, when Moonee is at her most desperate, she goes to a friend for help. Her friend doesn’t understand what her troubles are, but she knows that she has to get away. So she takes her hand and they run. The 35mm film that the entire movie has been shot in up to this point suddenly changes and instead we get footage from an iPhone that follows the pair of girls as they run all the way into the Magic Kingdom. It’s a break with reality and an indication of the first place they can think of as an ideal retreat from their troubles. In the land of Cinderella’s castle they will be happy and safe, with surroundings that match.
Is The Florida Project blaming Disney for the struggles of its protagonist? I don’t think that can be effectively argued. Although we are meant to sympathize with Moonee and her mom, we aren’t meant to think they aren’t responsible for many of their own troubles. We watch them break rules and laws that aren’t trivial and usually react to admonishment without a hint of internal guilt. Primarily, Walt Disney World is used symbolically as the idealized version of Moonee’s rough surroundings and as the fall guy for destructive consumerism overall. They’re certainly a more than decent target for those excesses.
If you have seen The Florida Project, I’d love to read your thoughts on it. If you haven’t, well…I’d recommend it, and I hope reading all of this doesn’t constitute spoiling for you.
Posted on February 7, 2018, in Awards, Movies, Oscars, personal musings, reviews, Walt Disney World and tagged Academy Awards, Oscars, The Florida Project, Willem DaFoe. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.