It’s safe to say over the past couple of years there has been in a change in Hollywood. We have started to see groups that are generally unappreciated, inconspicuous and underrepresented take the forefront. Whether it’s movies like Moonlight, Ladybird, The Big Sick or Girls Trip. There are now films that are shining a light on the formally unnoticed. At its core, this is what films should do; tell us stories that we don’t know, take us where we can’t normally go, and introduce us to people that we wouldn’t normally meet. This is what I love about films. I love that a well told story can take me into a world and perspective that I can’t usually experience. This most recently happened to me when I saw The Florida Project.
The Florida Project follows the life of six-year old Moonee throughout a summer at the budget motel she lives in with her mom. It takes place in the shadows of Walt Disney World on a commercial strip that caters to its tourists. As we follow Moonee we see more than
just an adventurous summer through the eyes of a six-year old. We see an unflinching and uncomfortable look at American poverty. The conditions the people of The Magic Castle live in are less than ideal to say the least. They are paying weekly rates that match what a lot of Americans pay to live in apartments, to live in a low budget motel room. Money is scarce because jobs are hard to come by for the residents of the motel, resulting in situations where they are doing whatever they can to survive. This mindset makes it nearly impossible for their situation to improve. Creating a cycle in which there seems to be no hope.
The cycle Moonee and her mom, Halley, find themselves in is one that many Americans face. This is especially true in Kissimmee, Florida, where the film takes place. According to an Orlando Sentinel article from last October, the last quarterly census showed that Orlando was 23rd in population and 138th in wages. That mixed with the high cost of living in the area make for a situation that can be impossible to get out of. It’s easy to look at those in poverty and think that they are there because of their own lack of work ethic or will to do better. That is the crux of the American dream. The idea that if you want something bad enough you can get it in this country, regardless of your situation or where you come from. However, this is simply the lie that capitalism tells those of us who are fortunate enough not to be in that situation. The Florida Project aims to dispel this fallacy.
The characters in The Florida Project are hard characters to relate to. If you aren’t from that situation, then it’s harder to sympathize with the people in that situation. This is the struggle we have with Halley. She had Moonee when she was young and didn’t really have a chance to grow up herself, thus propelling her into adulthood before she was ready. This is evident in the way that she interacts with her daughter. Throughout the entirety of the film Halley does not punish her once. Regardless of the action or how they affect the people around them Halley handles it like a child would, laughing and mocking the person that is upset. Halley is more of a sister to Moonee than a mom. They have fun together and Halley clearly loves her but there is no structure or order. Moonee is allowed to just wander for hours at a time without any real adult supervision. Her and her friends can seemingly go as far as their little legs can take them and no one (especially Halley) seems to care.
Halley’s bad parenting could however be perceived as a product of circumstance. The environment that Halley is living in is not a stable one. She is not surrounded by the resources and luxuries that most of us have. She is in survival mode. She has to do whatever she can to make a life for her and her daughter. This puts her in a place to make bad decisions. She doesn’t seem to have many skills or talents that would allow her to get a job to get out of their situation. She doesn’t have schooling or experience that would get her more than a low wage job, so she resorts to what she knows. She knows she can sell her body. She was a stripper and when she got fired from that she became a prostitute. These are not good life decisions or ones that would offer any long-term stability, but what are her other options? From her perspective she is doing what she can to survive. She takes Moonee on a shopping spree and out to lunch but most importantly she pays her rent. When you feel trapped in a cycle that will not let you succeed and you have no options, awful decisions become plausible. There is no doubt that Halley is a bad, unfit mother that should not be raising a child. However, there is also no doubt that she loves her daughter the way a mother should and tries her best to take care of her, but the weight of the situation ended up being too much for her.
The weight that the people of The Magic Castle (and neighboring budget motels) feel is particularly unique in this situation. They aren’t just trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty; they are experiencing this within spitting distance of a symbol of pure happiness and joy, Walt Disney World. Disney is only mentioned off hand but you can definitely feel the weight “the most magical place on earth” has on the impoverished people of The Magic Castle. The Disney fireworks show that we all love (and have even made friends of mine cry) plays a role in this film. There are times where you can just hear them off in the distance signifying just how close we are to the park. There is another scene where Halley takes Moonee and her friend Jancey, to a nearby resort to watch the fireworks for Jancey’s birthday. It’s a beautiful and heartwarming scene, but as it plays out you can’t help but think that this is as close as they will ever get to actually experiencing it. This scene is just an illustration of the weight that Disney has on these people and shows just how suffocating that can be. As the film unfolds you can see it slowly overcoming Halley. She references early on that the parks won’t hire her and even tries to make money later on in the film by selling stolen “magic bands” to tourists.
Disney hasn’t done anything wrong and shouldn’t be on trial here, however the shadow that it casts is undeniable. Its affect on the people around it is clear and is something that led me to a place of reflection. I am from the central Florida area. Disney has been apart of my life for as long as I can remember; I grew up going to Disney with my grandparents every year. We would stay in resorts similar to the one where Halley was caught soliciting knock off perfume to tourists. Disney has always carried fond memories for me. It signified happiness, creativity, imagination and joy. With all that being said, I unfortunately couldn’t help but relate to the tourists in the film that booked the wrong hotel. They ended up at The Magic Castle and were completely disgusted that they were there. That wasn’t what they signed up for; it wasn’t the “magical” Disney experience that they wanted. It was a run down budget motel that they didn’t want any part of. This illustrates the reality of life for the people at The Magic Castle, and how it is so vastly different from the life of those who are fortunate enough to experience Disney. For the impoverished residents of the motel, Disney doesn’t signify hope. It signifies everything in life they can never have. That can crush a person’s spirit and hope. As a viewer it leaves you heartbroken. The Florida Project will change you, the way you look at people in poverty and maybe even the way you look at Disney World.
The Florida Project is the type of film that this country needs. It is challenging us to take a real look into what poverty in this country looks like. It puts a face on a situation that we don’t think about nearly as often as we should. It is compassionate to those we don’t always offer compassion to, forcing us to see and internalize American poverty; this is very necessary. Problems can be ignored and overlooked if we don’t have to see them. The Florida Project doesn’t give us that opportunity. It’s time that we accept this challenge, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be, and really look into a part of Americana that we have been ignoring for a long time.