The Florida Project is an unprecedented story of American poverty

The American movie, as a medium, is almost always aspirational: we see stories of people we’d like to become. Even among films that we consider to be harsh criticisms of American society, they tend to focus on characters who are more beautiful, or smart, or funny, or charming than the rest of us. That tendency leads to an omission of perspectives from those at the bottom. Among the 50 movies nominated for an Oscar in 2018, only one dealt meaningfully with poverty in the U.S.: The Florida Project.

This is not atypical: among all American films between 1902 and 2015 (essentially the entire span of film history), only 299 films were significantly concerned with poverty or homelessness. That’s less than three movies per year.

The Florida Project breaks this mold. The film takes place over the span of a summer in Orlando, where a young girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives in a motel just outside the boundaries of Disney World. As Moonee scampers around the area with some other friends from the motel, her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), struggles to find the money to pay her weekly rent to the motel manager (Willem Dafoe) who works tirelessly to hold the motel together. There’s not really a plot; we shift between the characters in this motel, getting a sense of a unique world in a specific moment in time. There aren’t many recent films to compare The Florida Project to, but in this way it feels a lot like the 2016 documentary Cameraperson: many scenes are not causally related, but they all add up to a very precise vision.

The common praise for The Florida Project, as well as director Sean Baker’s previous breakout film Tangerine, is that they are stories too rarely told on screen. Baker has been roundly praised for serving as a voice fighting to bring an image of the “real America” to the movies. This praise, though, sells short what Baker has accomplished with these films. He’s not just telling a story of impoverished Americans; he is telling their story in a fundamentally different way, one which rejects an othering of the characters at its core. Baker’s films insist that this population, normally portrayed as a band of outsiders, is the core of American life.

American films about poverty have been unable to navigate this perspective in the past, because they usually end up falling into a couple traps. The first trap is one of sympathy: we are invited to witness the severe hardships of someone in an effort to recognize a pain that exists somewhere, elsewhere, in the world. The second trap is one of empathy: we are given characters struggling through a difficult situation, but with enough verve and charm that we see they are “just like us.” Both of these traps create the same problem: they operate under the assumption that the characters in the film exist in a world unfamiliar to the audience. This might be true, but that assumption has the unavoidable consequence of portraying the impoverished character as an ‘other’: someone to learn from, certainly, but not to identify with.

The Florida Project feels like an unprecedented achievement, then, because Baker manages not to fall into either of these traps. The motel patrons are not depicted as the alienated rejects of American society; they are the heart of American society. Sean Baker’s America is one that exists in laundromats and dollar stores and roadside highways. Those people, over in Disney World? They’re in the periphery. The spaces in between are where everything is really happening. At one point, an outsider to the motel community remarks that the place is a dump. It’s probably how I would describe the motel, too, if I were passing by on my way to the self-proclaimed ‘Most Magical Place on Earth.’ But after spending two hours in this space, it seemed ridiculous that he could possibly call the motel a dump, and not see it for what it is: a home.

And because of this unique perspective that brings us into this community, The Florida Project has a completely different feel than other films about American poverty. The line on a movie like this might typically be that it is a harsh look at the struggles of poverty, but has a glimmer of hope. The Florida Project rejects that model: the movie’s primary mode of operation is joy. The motel grounds are small, but they feel boundless. Rather than focusing on the dank, dark motel rooms, Baker turns the camera to sweeping sunsets and vibrant purple motel exteriors. There is beauty in this world, because it is a community that makes it their own.

There is trauma in these characters’ lives to be sure, but that is not the focus. The focus is sharing an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, or playing in the rain, or exploring abandoned condominium ruins. Prince, the child star at the center of it all, brings a sense of joy and wonder to every one of these moments. There’s a scene where Moonee puts a strawberry and raspberry in her mouth at the same time to see what it will taste like. She pauses as she chews, and there hasn’t been a more suspenseful moment at the movies all year.

This is not to say we don’t recognize the hardships. We do. But I think Baker’s narrative structure serves as a much-needed counter to the American impulse to manufacture hope into stories of misery. Joy runs abundant in The Florida Project, but there is no hope, no aspiration. These people are not trying to escape from poverty; they are just living their lives. Everything is about making it till tomorrow; there is no sense of the future.

When nearby helicopters take people to Disney World, Moonee and Halley flip them off. Disney World is emblematic of the American Dream, and it’s over there, just beyond their physical reach. But it’s not a place the characters have any feasible chance of going. By placing this story in a motel outside Disney World, Baker gives us a completely insular story of American poverty that still has an eye on what lies beyond. It’s the harshest vision of the American Dream, because there is no dream. It’s not even in sight.

The Florida Project only earned one Oscar nomination, a supporting actor nod for Willem Dafoe. Many critics derided the fact that the one film about poverty in the running for nominations was almost entirely shut out. And yet the film was critically celebrated, and its very existence is a victory. It didn’t win at the Oscars, but it was certainly part of the conversation.

When Moonlight won Best Picture last year, it was lauded as a trailblazing cinematic achievement for representation on screen, the intimate coming-of-age story of a gay black man. But Moonlight was also significant for its socioeconomic backdrop: I’m not sure that any other Best Picture winner in the past 50 years has truly concerned itself with American poverty.

This year, three of the Best Picture nominees (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, and I, Tonya) focused on lower-income, if not impoverished, Americans. I’m not sure that constitutes a trend yet, but it will be interesting to see if it continues. Perhaps filmmaking is simply catching up to the reality of America. One could say that Baker is a much-needed voice for the stories in the unseen spaces of America, but it might be the opposite. Perhaps Baker’s vision has struck a chord not because he’s telling a rare story, but because he’s telling a story that increasingly aligns with what America truly is.

Baker’s next project will be a drama set against the backdrop of the American opioid crisis. The drug epidemic has hit a massive scale, and yet in the American consciousness, it somehow feels distant: that’s an issue for those states, those communities, that family. An issue that should concern us all feels abstract, something that’s happening to someone else. I can think of no one better to take on this topic than Baker, who is embarking on a country-wide road trip to better understand the opioid crisis before making this movie. If Tangerine and The Florida Project are any indication, Baker will hopefully succeed where our national conversation has failed: it will not be a story of a community in pain, but a story about all of us.

The Florida Project: 4 stars