A few blocks outside of the so-called “happiest place on Earth” resides the segregated Magical Kingdom of young Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a semi-permanent resident of a budget motel—actually called the Magic Castle—along the yellow brick highway en route to Disney World.
“It was when we were spending time in that area and getting to know some of the people in that community that we started to pull inspiration from people we met,” says writer-director Sean Baker, describing the research process behind his newest film in a phone call from Syracuse, New York to the Georgia Straight.
“It’s about starting at a particular location and then through our interviews and interactions figuring out where our characters would be hanging in real life.”
The Florida Project (now playing) is a rhapsodic ode to this would-be wonderland, the literal remnants of a post-sub prime mortgage crisis wasteland along Route 192 in Orlando, Florida. Baker observes every nook and cranny of this world, creating a film as detailed as his 2015 breakout Tangerine, another work about endearingly abrasive people living on the economic margins. Baker is once again obsessive about regional detail, right down the mischievous and endangered cranes that make a random appearance in the film.
“It was something we wanted to point out, keeping it grounded in reality,” he says. “They lived on the property of the Magic Castle. They would come every morning, knock on the window, and get their Cheetos from the main clerks. They were addicted to junk food.”
Moonee and her friends are raised on whatever the human-ideological equivalent of that is. Their playground is surrounded by the advertisements of Mc-world consumerism and tourist propaganda, and they’re exposed to this glossy and decadent environment with little guidance. There’s only so much the motel’s paternalistic manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) can do as he balances his professional responsibilities with his empathy for these kids, ones who were born in the recession and have only known extreme poverty their entire lives.
But the irony of rampant income inequality backdropped by the Disney myth isn’t lost on Baker.
“It’s always looming, even in our lives outside of that area,” he says. “It’s a cultural phenomena that’s unmatched. The only thing that beats it out is organized religion.”
But the film eventually pushes us outside of the kids’ innocent perspective. In Baker’s own words: “It couldn’t always remain funny games; it’s as simple as that.”
The Florida Project’s masterstroke is how it modulates this change in tone. The kids’ behavior remains consistent; it’s our initial perception of their delinquency as comedic that changes. Moonee’s single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) is unemployed and barely making her weekly rent payments. The young girl slowly becomes aware of her oppressed existence, and it’s heartbreaking to behold.
“I’ve been getting feedback from audience members saying that they were just simply waiting for one of them to get hit by a car, somebody overdosed—this stuff is something I think audiences are used to, and this is something we definitely wanted to avoid,” says Baker. “The lives of these families is already dramatic.”