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THE FLORIDA PROJECT: Just Outside The Greatest Place On Earth

The Florida Project offers a unique and essential glimpse into contemporary poverty in America, encompassing both its wonders and hardships.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT: Just Outside The Greatest Place On Earth
The Florida Project offers as unique a glimpse into the life of low-income Americans in the 21st century as only writer-director Sean Baker could deliver. Coming off of the breakthrough success lauded onto his 2015 indie drama TangerineBaker has turned his attention from one maligned subculture to another. After following the winding lives of several transgender sex workers traversing the urban environs of Tinseltown on Christmas Eve, The Florida Project offers a vibrantly colored parable on the plights of those living in the shadow of commercial largesse in Orlando, Florida.

Focusing in on an unconventional assemblage of residents living out of an economy motel, The Florida Project offers a unique point of view from which to watch its characters, namely that of child actor and star Brooklynn Prince. Rather than seeing all the ways in which her purple colored abode are lacking, Brooklynn frolics in a paradise of her own imagining that rivals the real world splendor of Walt Disney World.

Playing the role of her mother is untrained actor Bria Vinaite, a spritely youth whose impoverished lifestyle is worn more like a badge of honor than an albatross. Rounding out the nuclear unit is celebrated Hollywood star Willem Dafoe, who plays the part of the put-upon motel manager who single-handedly protects his residents from further destitution, often to his own professional and personal detriment.     

Finding Neverland

The ways in which Brooklynn Prince discovers small delights and wonders scattered across the landscape of the larger Orlando, Florida area offers a unique representation of the various landmarks and tourist traps that might otherwise beleaguer the spirits of its older residents. Instead of seeing the gross gap of income inequality that is perversely laid bare in the difference between the residents of Dafoe‘s garish purple castle and the moneyed tourists who determinedly turn a blind eye to its suffering indigenous population, Brooklynn finds Neverland within the same environment.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT: Just Outside The Greatest Place On Earth

source: A24

Much like Beasts of the Southern Wild did for the Louisiana Bayou, The Florida Project recasts the legacy of another American territory against the realm of myth and fantasy. Paying special attention to the many grotesqueries of Florida’s commercial real estate, Baker toys with how viewers might otherwise approach a cinematic world that is marked by tragedy, turmoil, and violence.

Discovered through her prolific presence on the social media platform Instagram, Bria Vinaite offers a brief glimpse into the future that Brooklynn is primed to inherit. Lacking any formal education, Vinaite is a creature shaped entirely by circumstance in Baker‘s film. But rather than wallow in what many might see as a sorry existence, Vinaite thrives on the fringe of prim propriety.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT: Just Outside The Greatest Place On Earth

source: A24

Nevertheless, Vinaite falls into promiscuity and indecorum time and time again throughout The Florida Project. Yet whenever she does so, it’s hard to come away from any of her encounters with the film’s other characters with an even an ounce of malice towards her uncouth behavior. And when Brooklynn is finally slated to be taken away from Vinaite by the state, the final mad dash undertaken by Brooklynn from her imagined wonderland to the adjacent greatest place on earth is tinged with melancholy and sorrow not for what Vinaite has done but for what might become of her and her daughter yet.

An American Dream

Remarkably, Brooklynn and Vinaite manage to get by on their own without the help of a male presence influencing their various comings and goings. Nevertheless, Dafoe frequently steps in when residents of the surrounding world threaten to topple the precarious ecosystem represented by the film’s great purple paradise. Yet Dafoe never acts as a father to either Brooklynn or Vinaite, even as many of his actions place him in the role of their reluctant protector.

Lingering around the border of his carefully maintained kingdom, Dafoe never strives to exert an overtly patriarchal authority over any of his dependents. Instead, Dafoe stands at a distance from the various events that occur over the course of any single day, leaving characters like Brooklynn and Vinaite to continue enjoying their very own version of an American dream.

Except the dream that Vinaite has established for herself and her young child frequently bleeds into the realm of nightmare. During a particularly volatile arc of the film’s script, Neverland is lost to the surrounding harsh reality of 21st century American poverty. In the midst of a confrontation with her best friend and neighbor, Vinaite lashes out in violence against a facile domestic ideal that irrevocably begins to crumble soon thereafter.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT: Just Outside The Greatest Place On Earth

source: A24

During the film’s climactic sequence that sees Brooklynn seeking out the cold comfort of Walt Disney World just as the surreality of childhood begins to lose its hold on her imagination, there is a tenderness to the kind of tragedy that is being depicted. Instead of glossing over the less savory bits of his story, Baker refuses to turn a blind eye to what might actually happen to his beloved heroes, no matter how much the viewer might wish to return to Neverland and its great purple paradise.

The Florida Project: Conclusion 

The Florida Project will likely remain in the minds of many moviegoers come time of awards season. The visual and ethical tenacity with which Baker represents its world is astounding, and newcomers Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite shine right alongside Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe in one of the greatest films of the year.

The paradise that is lost over the course of the film’s trim 110 minute runtime is one that many of us may remember fondly from childhood; only in The Florida Project, the wild flights of fantasy feel even more precious and irreplaceable considering the real world that their creator will soon inherit. There is little reason to believe that a brighter tomorrow is waiting for either BrooklynnVinaite, or Dafoe by the time the film’s credits begin to roll, yet the brief stay of execution represented by its cinematic return to Neverland helps alleviate the pains of what is an essential text on contemporary poverty.

Have you seen The Florida Project? If so, do you think Sean Baker handled its subject matter with empathy and compassion?

The Florida Project saw theatrical release in the U.S. on October 6, 2017. Find international release dates here.

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

English Major, Film Buff, and Citizen of the World, Sean K. Cureton is a born and raised Jersey Boy. Having received a B.A. in English from Rutgers University, Sean is proud to call the Garden State his home, equidistant from both the steps that made Sylvester Stallone a household name, and the park where Harry was cordially introduced to Sally, even if he’d prefer to a stay in state due to a certain fondness for a convenience store located in Leonardo, NJ. When he’s not in the multiplex, you can follow him on Twitter, @seankcureton.

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