Dir. Sean Baker. Starring Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe
(Or, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Representation.”)
On many levels, The Florida Project is a good movie, and the majority of those are technical. There are some good wallpaper shots, such as when Moonee (Prince) and her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) look out at that purple motel with the rainbow overtop, or when Bobby (Dafoe) shoos some sandhill cranes out of a parking lot. (“No harm, no fowl,” he says, and the world as one winces amiably.) Baker took care of the editing as well, and I like his editing more than I like his movie. He knows how long to linger on a scene, when it’s spent and when it’s better to turn away. There are some short sequences of Moonee and her mom, Halley (Vinaite) having fun together, and these are short. They fool around on a stretch of grass, Halley smiles, and we know there’s shared affection. In an earlier sequence, Moonee, Jancey, and a boy named Scooty (Christopher Rivera) get into some foreclosed houses and explore. Moonee plans out what her room would look like. Scooty takes to the walls with a crowbar. A toilet shatters outside. They put a pillow in the fireplace, and Baker leaves us with the sight of them holding a lighter underneath this pillow in a way that makes it totally clear what will happen next. Cut: and the kids are closer to home and clearly a little shaken. It’s a movie made by people who know what they’re doing, and that’s especially true for the actors or, at least, casting. Vinaite slouches through her part convincingly; Halley is the personification of low effort, and with her slow, slurring speech she presents this kind of person well.
Dafoe is wonderful in a sympathetic part, and there’s no question that he should have won Best Supporting Actor at the 90th Academy Awards. (Maybe if Bobby was racist first and then had a “change of heart” or something, then Dafoe would have won instead of Sam Rockwell.) Bobby, the building manager, is the actual catcher in the rye. He goes out of his way again and again to help Halley out, and the implication is that he must do so for everybody at the Magic Castle. He has fragile workarounds in place to ensure that the residents, who are forced to move out by ownership before they can establish residency, can stay at another joint and then retrieve their stuff the following day. Bobby wards off one of Halley’s johns when he demands to get Disney passes back from Halley, who we saw selling them in an earlier scene. (It’s sort of a Pyrrhic victory for Halley, since Bobby tells her after the guy leaves that anyone entering her room now has to leave ID at the front desk; The Florida Project wants it crystal clear that Bobby isn’t her pimp.) In the movie’s most powerful scene, Bobby is repainting the Magic Castle while up on a ladder, spies a man he doesn’t know engaging a bunch of the motel kids, and scrambles down to intercept the man before he can do whatever it is he clearly wants to do. Why are you here? The man says he was looking for a soda machine. So you came to a motel for a soda! Bobby says, and walks the man away from the kids without letting them know there’s anything wrong. A couple of minutes later, the man’s identity has been ascertained, Bobby smacked the soda out of his hand, and we have a scene that could have been played by John Wayne. It’s an intense sequence, heightened by a long dolly shot that takes Bobby and the pervert away from the kids while Moonee continues to bounce on a picnic table.
For all of the good moments, the movie is squeamish. Halley beats up her ex-friend Ashley (Mela Murder) after Ashley retracts her friendship (and free hand with food from the restaurant she works at) when it’s clear to her that Scooty burned down that house with Moonee. The actual blows are hidden neatly by a bed in Ashley’s room. Moonee starts taking a lot of baths late in the film, and in one scene the camera focuses on her when a guy busts in and says to Halley, likewise unseen, “You got a kid in here?” It was already fairly clear that Halley had resorted to prostitution to pay the rent, but it’s made explicit for us here just in case we didn’t get it. The movie may believe that it’s about Moonee, but there are enough scenes where we watch Halley struggle and rave and pitch fits that it’s more about her mother, and Moonee is basically a Saltine between tastings. The overall effect is that these scenes ring false. Sean Baker, whose name is all over the movie’s credits, appears to have no understanding of poverty beyond whatever he read in Les Miserables; not every mother without money is Fantine, and in Les Miserables there’s no question who’s been wronged. Halley is given to us in an improbable combination: the welfare liberal’s unquestioning sympathy with the tough conservative’s equating of poverty and laziness. We have no idea of her backstory, or even of Moonee’s, for that matter. The people of the Magic Castle may have always been there, for all we know, outside of time and inflation and policy. In practical terms, it means that The Florida Project is all gilt in terms of characterization, relying on us to fill in the blanks with our own understandings of what people living in poverty are like. It’s a bad move.
The movie’s sympathy, which rests quite firmly with Halley and Moonee, is likewise misplaced. In the end, social workers and cops show up to take Moonee from Halley and put her in foster care. It must be the first day on the job for all of them, who have no idea how to explain to Moonee what’s happening. She escapes them; one bites the dust on the stairs. What follows is bizarre, at best, though it’s one of those moments in a movie where you can imagine the screenwriter making chef fingers. You lose my kid, and I’m the one who’s unfit? she yells. I have no idea how we’re supposed to root for Halley in this moment; parents like her are the reason we have foster care in the first place. Halley has no job, no prospects for steady employment, has resorted to prostitution, and lives week-to-week in a motel. She likes Moonee, but she is demonstrably unable to provide any sort of opportunities for her elementary school aged daughter. Moonee weeps in front of Jancey when she tries to tell her friend that she’s going to be taken from her mother, and of course it’s a sad moment, but it’s also indicative of the romantic exploitation Baker has in mind.
When we talk about representation, what we mean is not to bar Sean Baker and other people like him from Hollywood or whatever industry has in mind. If he wants to tell this story, then he should be able to tell the story. But the story is not well-made. It is inauthentic and showy, lacking the forthrightness and humanity of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, another movie about youth in impoverished Trumpland. Is it at least possible that Sean Baker, who grew up in the ritzy North Jersey suburbs of New York City, went to private school, and then graduated from NYU, might be the wrong person to tell the story of Floridians trying to get by? Is it possible that in the hands of someone whose experience is a little more nuanced that we might have gotten a better movie? (This, to me, is really at the heart of why representation matters from an artistic perspective: more viewpoints almost certainly mean more honest art.) The Florida Project is not Rome, Open City or Killer of Sheep, and Sean Baker is not Rossellini or Burnett. There’s no kitchen sink in the DNA of this film. A handheld camera, mumbled dialogue, and tattoos can only signify so much realism, and in Baker’s hands they’re like bacon bits failing to disguise a salad made entirely of iceberg lettuce. For him, this is all just a fantasy anyway. Perhaps the intent of watching Jancey lead Moonee into Disney World is to emphasize that just miles from her motel, there is a world that does not sorrow or hunger or worry about tomorrow. I can’t stop myself from reading it differently: it’s a metaphor for the film itself, burrowing inside its own made-up world and hoping that no one will realize it is the poorest, most digestible simulacrum.