If you venture into the city of Kissimmee, Florida, you might stumble upon the enchanted Magic Castle. It’s garish, a monstrous structure with high walls and tall battlements, all smothered in gaudy purple paint. Unmistakable from the nearby freeway, it’s only a 20-minute drive from Walt Disney World—no traffic. Travelers looking for a place to call home as they embark on the adventure of a lifetime, the kind that only Mickey and the gang can pull off, can rent a room at the Magic Castle Inn and Suites for $40.28 a night. Averaging 2.7 stars on Travelocity, online reviewers have reported waking up to roaches in their bed, the incessant smell of mildew, and mold in the shower. And yet, for all of its endless shortcomings, director Sean Baker felt it was the perfect place to shoot his latest film The Florida Project.
The Magic Castle is one of many low budget inns and motels surrounding the Orlando metropolitan area. Hoping to attract tourists in the bustling Mouse-based economy, entrepreneurs have tried to capitalize on the fun by creating gimmicky off-brand themed business ventures: Futureland Inn, The Enchanted Inn, Orange World (don’t totally know about that last one).It seems obscene that such poverty exists in the shadow of the Happiest Place on Earth, perhaps even persisting under its watch.
A 2017 study from United Way found that almost half of all Orange County residents, the county where Disney World is located, are classified as “working poor.” Despite holding jobs, they struggle to provide consistent care for themselves and their families. With the area’s minimum wage falling below its living wage, it seems no wonder that many are struggling to make ends meet. These off-brand Disney attractions may seem kitschy, but if they can increase their revenue by drawing in tourists it seems the prudent option. And while Disney World alone employs over 70,000 people, the Associated Press reported in 2014 that many of the park’s employees themselves have been forced to take up residence in low-budget motels, just like the Magic Castle.
It seems obscene that such poverty exists in the shadow of the Happiest Place on Earth, perhaps even persisting under its watch. That the person serving my churro or checking my seatbelt on Magic Mountain could be living out of a derelict motel should be a devastating realization. A single day pass to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom costs $115, which means some of the park’s workers likely cannot afford the luxury of taking their family to visit Mickey and friends. And while this is a disheartening reality, to Baker, it is also a reality that must be confronted.
Any discussion on the nature of poverty is bound to be divisive in nature. We often hold our own perspectives on what poverty looks like or why it exists—even if our understandings are unfounded and poorly researched. In less skilled hands, The Florida Project might have been an over-the-top cliché, preachy and obnoxious, or perhaps a mess of hackneyed sympathy porn, something moving enough for middle class film viewers to laude, yet not feel overly burdened, such that they would be compelled out of guilt to seek change on behalf of the marginalized. But instead of playing into either stereotypes, both of which portray poverty as a spectacle to be consumed by those who don’t have to experience it, The Florida Project invites viewers to reexamine this issue without pretense and without judgement. It uses the fresh eyes of a child, a rambunctious 6-year-old named Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), to do so.
A resident at the Magic Castle, Moonee lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), an out-of-work stripper whose wiley schemes help pay the rent; she often peddles perfume to unsuspecting guests in the parking lot outside the upscale hotel nearby. And even though Moonee’s motel home is dark and dingy, this never seems to stop her and the other residents from having a good time—no matter how unconventional it may be.
Audiences are first introduced to Moonee when she and her friends Scooty and Dicky are on a balcony at the Futureland Inn, an adjacent motel, spitting on the car of a new resident. When the resident, Stacy, goes outside to confront the children, she’s met with a barrage of insults: “Go home, you ratchet b*tch” and “You are sh*t. Sh*t sh*t sh*t.” They also spit on the woman’s granddaughter, Jancey, flipping them both off as they run away.
Though Moonee and Scooty are eventually forced to wash the car (Dicky gets grounded by his father), the two don’t appear too disappointed about their punishment. They turn the cleaning into a game for themselves—squirting each other with water and shoving paper towels in each other’s faces. Stacy rebukes the kids saying, “You’re having too much fun, and it’s not supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to be work,” but even Jancey, despite her grandmother’s frustration, is drawn by the laughter of the other children and joins in on the fun. For now, their ignorance seems to grant them immunity from any possible fault or meaningful retribution.
The eyes of the children are uninitiated and the camera imitates this. Just feet away, Stacy explains how she is raising her grandchildren because their mother is too irresponsible to help. A somewhat sympathetic Haley offers to “spark her up” and the children are none the wiser. They take the conversation at face value because this is all they have ever known. Baker’s camera never judges. It only observes.
For all of their vulgarity and exposure to life’s sordid troubles, the children remain blissfully unaware of the true pain that continues to hound their parents. They lack the context to understand that twerking on park benches and looking at pornographic images are improper, but they are content to accept their lives for what they are and rather than being bitter about their status they choose to make their own fun. After all, they have their own private Magic Castle.
But it would be simplistic to say their only virtue is ignorance, because even with their limited perspective, they are not without insight. When a couple on their honeymoon realize that they’ve booked a stay at the wrong location, the new bride begins to panic inside the motel lobby. Watching the scene unfold from outside, Moonee says, “I feel bad for her; she’s about to cry. I can always tell when adults are about to cry.”
While she may not understand the complex systems that have dictated her life, Moonee can, with her child-like understanding, grasp hurt and pain and kindness. Though she lacks context, her experiences have made her wiser than she knows. Her world exemplifies brokenness, but she is smart enough to recognize that things are not as they should be.
While we may cringe at the idea of seeing such raw stories played out on screen— 6-year-olds swearing at adults, spying on the topless elderly woman tanning at the pool, finagling adults into giving them ice cream money—assuming this all to be some horrific parable about the doctrine of total depravity, simply because the images are uncomfortable does not mean that they can be ignored. And using the viewer’s discomfort, Baker seeks to mine out truths that call into question our limited perspective.
These are the types of stories that Baker loves to tell. His films consistently shed light on stories that often go untold, the parts of modern life that many find too ugly to look at, the parts that best not be examined too closely. Baker rose to prominence with the release of his 2015 film Tangerine, a film shot entirely using the iPhone 5s that tells the story of transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles. His other works—Starlet, about a pornstar’s unlikely friendship with an elderly woman, and Take Out, about an undocumented Chinese delivery man—clearly highlight the niche he’s cut for himself. His films shine a spotlight on the crevices of society that often go unnoticed—often out of ignorance, but also out of disregard.
For The Florida Project, Baker asks viewers to questions their conception of goodness and what it looks like. Because while it is wrong to speak coarsely and do drugs in front of children, for all their screwed up interactions, Moonee and her little family find moments of clairvoyance that transcend their situation. Spinning around in a shopping cart, laughing at cows, celebrating a birthday with a single plastic wrapped cake with a candle in it; this is when the film shine brightest. The film is so uniquely human, both in its depiction of depravity and kindness.
Othering those that are different seems to have become a national pastime. Without the obvious mentioning of racism, sexism, and classism that have existed for centuries, our online echo chambers have made it even easier to exemplify our sinful tendency to dismiss those that are different from us. Subversive films like Baker’s are necessary because they challenge our conception of the world: of childhood, of family, of beloved entertainment conglomerate organizations. How often do we conflate sameness with goodness? How often do we correlate our normality with righteousness?
The Book of Jeremiah reminds readers that the heart is deceitful, that it is desperately sick, and that none can understand it. It is a warning that our concept of goodness is soiled. Films like The Florida Project make us confront our stubborn attitudes and force us to see the world, in all its strange and confounding complexities, with greater honesty.The Florida Project shines a light on a part of the American life that is altogether unconventional and uncomfortable. It cuts through the fabricated magic of our Disney day passes and asks us to examine something real, not manufactured. Disney World is an escape from reality, but The Florida Project forces us to confront it. Because while it may be easy to stroll down the streets of the Magic Kingdom, it is much more difficult to do so at the Magic Castle.