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To residents of London, or indeed Hampstead Village, it is no surprise to see one’s home turf writ large on the silver screen, in varying degrees of Hollywood-ification. But when The Florida Project opened onto a little-loved stretch of highway about 10 minutes away from my childhood house, I was shocked. However, I was even more amazed that they’d gotten it right... There, wrapped in my January coat in Kensal Rise’s Lexi cinema, I could feel the steam rising from the asphalt, the humid Southern air thick with the drone of cicadas…
The story follows three children and their guardians running amok in two garish (and real-life) motels on US Route 192 – a road that bisects Florida and, more importantly, is a main vein ferrying tourists to Walt Disney World.
Growing up in the shadow of Disney World is a unique experience full of strange juxtapositions and blurred lines between reality and fantasy – long have I thought it could be worthy of ethnographic study. Yet the film takes a magnifying glass to something far less familiar, happening under my nose: screenwriters Sean Baker and Chris Borgoch have looked deeper to report on an even lesser-known subculture. They tell the uncomfortable tale of America’s modern-day nomads. The number of displaced families has increased all over the states in the last decade, and many of these technically homeless parents and children have ended up in crumbling motels, where weekly rates are better than rentals and no objection is made to poor credit or a criminal record.
The Florida Project is filmed at one of these real-life residences, aptly named ‘The Magic Castle’, yet you would be forgiven for initially mistaking the fictional movie for a documentary. In fact, one of the film’s stars, 10-year-old Christopher Rivera, was casted while living in local motel. His co-stars were discovered locally too, or by the director while perusing Instagram profiles. The performances they give, perhaps as a result, are unstudied and deeply affecting. Willem Defoe, who perfectly plays the good-natured motel manager, is the only recognisable face, which helps to anchor the story in the realm of the imaginary.
The photography is up-close, immersive, and unadorned by a score that may sway sentiment. An intense portrait of human feeling and foibles, the film thrives on ambiguity. No character is black and white, wholly good or bad. The Florida Project relays desperate measures and economic downturn but somehow manages to avoid the Kitchen Sink trope. Though often disturbing, this glimpse into another life is also enormously freeing. A pervading transience and liminality affords the characters, both children and adults, a hungry brashness, a ruthlessness even, as well as the ability to relish completely moments of happiness when times are good, as everything is seemingly soon to fall apart. In spite of its raw depiction of social issues, The Florida Project doesn’t come across as a strident platform for political critique – at its core is a primarily heart-warming tale about children, friendship, and creating adventure out of nothing.
The writers expertly paint Disney as both oppressor and saviour, letting it loom as a symbol for capitalist culture and illustrate how economic disparity can so cleanly cut a dividing line through human experiences. The candy-coated buildings along Highway 192 are aspirational pastiches of the famous amusement parks. They are the “Magic Castle”, “Arabian Nights”, “Paradise Inn”, but no matter how luridly lilac Willem Defoe’s motel manager character paints the façade of his inn – pastiche is what it remains, nor can something more sinister lying beneath be concealed.
Yet importantly, Disney is also the ultimate escapist dream, especially for children. In a wonderful and heart-rending climax, the story’s two friends run frantically for Disney’s Magic Kingdom park, as if to safety, as if to love, as if to normality.
Yet, tragic, painful, ugly things can happen here, in a place that actually brands itself “The Happiest Place on EarthTM”, and indeed in any place where they are least expected. The film reminds me that, amid the same swamps and scrub oaks where I played as a child, there were people having a far different experience to my relatively privileged upbringing. Perhaps this is something important to remember around London too, especially in our leafy NW3 enclave.