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Childhood, Disneyland and Poverty in ‘The Florida Project’

I didn’t know what to watch and I was keen to try something a little different from the top 100 movies that I tend to go for just to tick off the ‘must see’ ones. However, I often find that the most interesting, gritty and intelligent films are the low-budget movies starring actors that are barely known to the general audience. I came across a film called The Florida Project which was directed by Sean Baker in 2017 and starred a group of actors unfamiliar to me with many of them being children. I didn’t know anything about it and so I took a chance on what seemed to be a quirky sort of film with some nice cinematography (judging by the trailer). It actually ended up being a movie that tackled many issues faced in modern-day America and made me think a lot about how America is presented and the continuation of this ‘dream’ or Utopia we still, to an extent, buy into when we think of the USA.

You have the iconic Disney castle juxtaposed with the reality of a crime-ridden dwelling painted in pretty candy pastel colours almost to mask the fact that it’s actually rotten

At least in recent times, I think it’s fair to suggest that the rose-tinted spectacles worn to believe in the ‘American Dream’ have come off. If not, The Florida Project helps you to remove them. The film is set during the summer break in an area along a highway outside Disneyland full of budget hotels that form ‘The Magic Castle’. It’s funny to see how the two ‘magic castles’ are so different. You have the iconic Disney castle juxtaposed with the reality of a crime-ridden dwelling painted in pretty candy pastel colours almost to mask the fact that it’s actually rotten.

There are drugs, violence, prostitution, broken facilities, swearing and general disruption all trying to be maintained and prevented by William Dafoe’s character, ‘Bobby’ who manages the cheap hotels. The cinematography is really something with pastel colours, well-placed camera angles and good lighting. The camera captures the perspective of six-year old ‘Moonee’ (Brooklyn Prince), ‘Jancey’ (Valeria Cotto) and ‘Scooty’ (Christopher Rivera) and their mischief, adventure and encounters with the real world amidst their imaginary fun. At times we laugh at their behaviour and commentary and other times, we pity them for what they’re exposed to and the fact that they will never really enjoy the child’s dream world of Disney that is so close and yet so far from them.

I believe Baker wanted this to come through when we watch the film. It’s interesting to note that ‘The Florida Project’ was the initial name Disneyland was first planned under. But the ‘projects’ of the USA are also notoriously places of poverty, crime and a lack of opportunity to better yourself. ‘The Magic Castle’ is home to a variety of residents from a mixture of backgrounds who are able to all relate to each other through their desperate situation and need to provide for their children. The question of ‘what is a good parent?’ is also something drawn out of the movie. ‘Halley’, who is ‘Moonee’s mother, is a young woman who sells perfume illegally on the street, smokes around her child constantly, swears and disrupts everything (things her daughter picks up on) and eventually ends up endangering ‘Moonee’ later in the movie. Yet, she is also always trying to do the best for ‘Moonee’, she hangs around with her playing and having fun, and her own childlike nature comes out a lot exposing perhaps her own backstory of not having much of a childhood considering how young she is with a six-year old daughter. We don’t tend to like her as it seems a lot of her circumstance is self-inflicted and selfish, however, we do see her struggling and can perhaps sympathise as the issue is bigger than merely the individual.

we get a sense of how fun it is being that age bringing back our own nostalgia for childhood

The Florida Project is very good at presenting childhood and the script works very well. I reckon that a lot of it must have been unscripted when it comes to the kids playing around and talking about random things with each other. There is a real authenticity which most films fail to capture so well. We really feel for these children who are exposed to so much at such a young age, but we get a sense of how fun it is being that age, bringing back our own nostalgia for childhood, playing with friends, exploration, imaginary games and getting into trouble constantly. ‘Moonee’, ‘Jancey’ and ‘Scooty’ are loveable kids who have clearly picked up a lot from their environment and yet seem to live optimistically perhaps in their own blissful ignorance and escapism. Although the film does have dark and gritty elements, since it is mainly from the perspective of a child, it is often talked about rather than shown. I find this is actually more hard-hitting than seeing it on-screen because we then realise what we hear is what the kid hears.

The movie captures the struggle of having a lack of financial stability, caring for children, dealing with hard times and an unpleasant environment whilst just outside the dream-like location of Disneyland, which has arguably become an icon of USA culture and mind-set: mask the issues in a theme park and present an alternative world so that we can all escape from the real one and the issues within it. It’s worth a watch if you like nice camera work, realism, great acting and a movie that makes you think.

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