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If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Disney

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Bria Vinaite as Halley and Brooklynn Prince as Moonee in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, 2017

The theme parks pioneered by Walt Disney in Anaheim and Orlando can be a readymade metaphor for a nation, an ideology, an artistic creation, or utopia itself. In The Florida Project, a new film by the American independent Sean Baker, it’s more like an unfulfilled promise.

The Florida Project, which was shown at the New York Film Festival before opening commercially, is a snapshot of chaos, focused on a heedlessly dissolute young mother and her rambunctious six-year-old daughter. Each wonderfully inventive in her way, the two are living week to week during summer vacation in a shabby $38-a-night motel on a strip just beyond the perimeter of Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

Baker, who is in his mid-forties, has made five independent features since 2004. His characters have all come from America’s economic margins or the margins of American fantasy life, and sometimes both. Take Out (2004) concerned an undocumented Chinese immigrant and Prince of Broadway (2008) depicted an African street peddler; both were set in New York. Starlet (2012), Baker’s most commercial film, and Tangerine (2015), his most experimental, were Hollywood stories, albeit ones that Hollywood would not be likely to produce.

Starlet is a tale of unlikely friendship played out in a tawdry show-biz setting, namely the San Fernando Valley porn film industry. More exuberantly sordid, Tangerine is a slapstick comedy shot with three iPhones and a Steadicam rig on and around Hollywood Boulevard, where a manic transgender hustler spends Christmas Eve tracking down her unfaithful pimp.

Touching but unsentimental, Starlet and Tangerine are cheerfully buoyant in plumbing the depths, and simultaneously upbeat and downbeat. Baker’s facility with this oxymoronic mood is even more pronounced in The Florida Project, which, as with his two earlier films, Baker co-wrote with Chris Bergoch. It begins, like a wedding party, with a blast of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” and a cute trio of kids sitting against a purple stucco wall wondering what sort of mischief they might attempt. (It turns out to be spitting on cars.)

The Florida Project is dedicated to Hal Roach’s Depression-era “Our Gang” comedies and much of it does concern children at play in America’s designated vacation land. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, a sometime child model and the daughter of an acting coach) lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, a first-time actress Baker discovered on Instagram) in the Magic Castle (referred to as “the purple place”). Her friend is living with her grandmother at the neighboring Futureland Inn. Their exit on the unlovely stretch of highway that provides a steady stream of traffic appears to be Seven Dwarfs Lane.

The surroundings are fanciful and casually debased. Moonee’s innate capacity for inventive play is rendered monumentally poignant in an environment where monstrous childlike structures abound. One store on the strip features a giant mermaid, another’s façade is a colossal wizard, a third takes the shape of a huge orange. Adult play is present as well in the form of an emporium called Machine Gun America.

The Magic Castle and Futureland Inn are separated by a drainage ditch and there’s a whole stretch of derelict condos, which at one point go up in smoke, several swampy lots away. Helicopters are as ubiquitous as palm trees—do they carry cops or tourists? In addition to the pizza that Halley occasionally provides, Moonee survives on food distributed by a church group or waffles smuggled out by a Magic Castle resident who works in a nearby pancake house. Moonee and friends are also skilled at panhandling tourists for soft-serve ice cream.

Moonee is a bit of a brat and so is Halley—both mother and child are naturally spirited and proficient at entertaining backtalk. Where Moonee is first seen wearing an “I Decided to Be Awesome Today” tee-shirt, her aqua-haired mother lives awesome: she is extravagantly tattooed (though only modestly pierced), with a floral bouquet on her chest that matches patterns on her arms.

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Willem Dafoe as Bobby and Prince as Moonee in Baker’s The Florida Project, 2017

However flawed, selfish, and frequently unlikable Halley is, she is not a negligent mother. If anything, she’s an endlessly indulgent sometime playmate. Fired as a topless dancer because she says she refused to provide sexual favors, and receiving some sort of grudging public assistance, Halley tries several scams—buying perfume wholesale and selling it to tourists, scalping tickets—before she is driven to turning tricks. Her desperation is far too natural to seem melodramatic. The most responsible adult is the Magic Castle handyman Bobby (Willem Dafoe, in a nuanced, unexpectedly warm performance), who is responsible for eliminating bed bugs and warding off pederasts. He cannot, however, protect Halley from eviction or from herself.

In the realm of American independent filmmakers, Baker has certain affinities with his near-contemporary, Harmony Korine. Korine is similarly drawn to outcast types and is likewise a regionalist with a taste for outré or derelict landscapes. Korine has also experimented with formats—shot on distressed outmoded videotape, his 2009 Trash Humpers is as radical in its way as was the phone-camera verité of Tangerine.

But where Korine is an advocate of shock or transgressive cinema, a less benign John Waters, Baker is a humanist. Korine, for better or worse, is a filmmaker; Baker is primarily a director. His movies are character-driven and performative. Like his two preceding films, The Florida Project rests on the emotional bond between two protagonists—Moonee and Halley are even more entwined than the twenty-one-year-old porn actress and eighty-five-year-old recluse in Starlet or the transgender gal-pals in Tangerine.

The Florida Project is also close to neo-realism, shot on location with a largely non-professional cast. (The one established star is cast somewhat against type.) Much of the dialogue in Tangerine, largely a series of high-intensity confrontations, feels as if it was generated by its principal players. Here, the kids, particularly Moonee, seem to be speaking for themselves.

A recent shoe-string production, Randy Moore’s 2013 Escape From Tomorrow, used the Disney theme park, where it was shot, guerrilla-style, on the sly, as the setting for a mental breakdown. The Florida Project is not hallucinatory but, for almost its entirety, Disney World can only be sensed as something that has irradiated the local landscape—as when a pair of honeymooners freak out to discover that they have reservations at the Magic Castle rather than within the Magic Kingdom, or when Halley takes Moonee and another child to an empty lot to watch the evening fireworks display. The most concrete manifestation is a Disney Gift Outlet the size of an airplane hangar. Only when Moonee’s situation seems truly intolerable does the Magic Kingdom open its gates—again to the sound, now muted, of “Celebration.”

The Florida Project is presented as a heartwarming story—the press notes describe it as “warm, winning, and gloriously alive” movie that “declares boldly and proudly, that anywhere can be a Magic Kingdom—it just depends on how you see it.” If you wish hard enough, it might almost be a Disney story. (The film takes its title from Disney’s name for the Magic Kingdom while it was being planned.) The Florida Project is certainly lively, but it is anything but redemptive. In spite of its episodic documentary quality, it traces an overdetermined downward spiral. Invoked throughout, “the DCF,” Florida’s Department of Children and Families, finally makes an appearance.

Back in the early 1980s, the country-western star Hank Williams Jr. had a hit single, “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie.” A few years after that Time magazine titled its cover story on the Magic Kingdom, “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Disney Theme Parks.” I take that to be Baker’s grim point.


Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is now in theaters.