As we go about our modest lives, in this bizarre economy, just trying to get by, it’s easy to feel like the idea of “getting ahead” is unattainable. The fact that we bust our butts with multiple jobs, pay off every useless student loan, and still have just the bare minimum to get by, makes it feel like a comfortable sustainable lifestyle will never sustain itself. And in this uncertainty, it’s hard not to feel a mild, if nonetheless constant, amount of despair.
Of course, being “millennial poor” isn’t the same as being “poor poor”, as there are a lot of folks out there really struggling, and not a lot of folks with the means making things any easier for them. So it’s a tricky thing to portray the lives of those living on the outer fringes of the gig economy, where even getting a respectable gig is unfathomable. And yet, with a breezy (but not too breezy) style all his own, Tangerine director Sean Baker has again shown there is a way of portraying this less glamorous side of American life, but without burdening it with a kind of bleak neo-realism.
One of the many things that made Tangerine notable was its look, seeing as it was shot entirely on iPhones, and thus had this very authentic “on the street” feel to it. And due to this, the way the plot unfolded also had this very organic feel to it. Less like you were watching a movie plot unfold in front of you rather than just a series of events in this one very strange day while being surrounded by a bunch of offbeat characters.
Though shot on actual film, and therefore looking like an actual film, The Florida Project still takes a pretty similar approach in terms of storytelling. We get a kind of fly-on-the-wall look at this one particular extended stay motel located in Florida, assumedly in the shadows of the wonder and escapism of Disneyland. Here, we see the lives of a recurring cast of characters that appear throughout the film, though it focuses mainly on a mother and daughter combo (played by Brooklynn Prince and Bria Viniate, respectively), while we also get to see the day-to-day work of Bobby (William Dafoe), the hotel manager trying to keep the place running smoothly.
I suppose the most striking thing about The Florida Project is the way it manages to portray the life of a child, but without ever sugarcoating the circumstances of the lives of the main child, Halley, and her similarly poverty-stricken playmates. In simple detail, we see them go about their routines of asking tourists for ice cream money, bugging their neighbors, and rummaging through some of the abandoned slums with a kind of playful mischievousness. And even though there is a kind of foreboding uncertainty that hangs over the whole film, a lot of these scenes with the kids are often sweet and charming.
Yet, The Flordia Project also depicts quite frankly that these kids are clearly the victims of bad parenting, as Halley’s mom isn’t going to win any “mother of the year” awards. Though the film still shies away from ever villainizing anyone, and instead opts to depict these people as just trying to do the best they can under the circumstances, which of course aren’t great. That isn’t to say that this film might not be a bummer for some viewers, but I think it is a lot more light-hearted than you’d expect this kind of story to be, but also while being true to its characters. And on top of that, has a real emotional gut punch of an ending, that much like the rest of the film, seems like it could feel exploitative or sentimental in less empathetic hands, but somehow manages to escape that kind of doomed fate.