The Florida Project — Magical Realism at its Best

The Florida Project is one of those rare stories that isn’t told often enough.

Here is a film that goes to the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, the culturally and socially bankrupt, families living hand-to-mouth, and meets them where they are. No judgment. No finger-pointing. No smug gawking or condescension. Just a warm, empathetic look at life on the margins. A story told from the perspective of children, their mischief, their wonder, all while growing up in the shade of the Happiest Place on Earth.

There’s a certain irony to the film: poverty has rarely been depicted with so much blithe and youthful innocence. The child actors are much to thank here. They’re a complete joy to watch onscreen. They inhabit a world untroubled by the troubling circumstances they actually live in, but seem unaware of it. And it’s in this wondrous space where magical and unmagical castles intersect. Where the shadowy border between them is where we spend our time and contemplate the vast income disparities that keep them apart. If we are to solve world poverty, the film seems to ask, or at least give a charitable eye to the invisible homeless populations enmeshed around us, we must first understand who and where they are.

This, I think, is the film’s greatest strength — taking people where they are without exploiting their situation or uppishly demanding they pay for their ills. Here is a story that gives a voice to a voiceless community that deserves our listening ears.

For as much joy as The Florida Project exudes, the story also never once abandons its tragic grounding. Unhappy reality intrudes on childlike sentiment. Well-meaning parents eventually cause heartbreak for their children. And Sean Baker, the director, balances these impulses with amazing grace, which is no easy task either. While the children are easily the lights of the film, the adults carry a lot of disadvantaged baggage. It’s sad because these children most likely mirror who their parents used to be, enchanted, little rascals of a rundown budget motel who will one day carry the crosses their parents now shoulder. The cruel tide of poverty and absent role models seems passed down from one generation to the next, the cycle self-perpetuating. However, the film never belabors these ideas nor patronizes its characters. In Baker’s kingdom, careful observation is given and compassion extended. His is a cinema of artistic humanism.

While the final moments of the film are devastating, the last string of images accompanied by a swelling, hyper-real score acknowledge a sweeter dimension at play. Perhaps sometimes we don’t know how to believe in anything higher when the pain of reality bears us down. No magical castle can ultimately make our troubles disappear, true enough. But how moving it is that we have places of refuge, of warmth, of happiness and wonder. Places that keep nagging pains and woes outside their transient walls, even if they remain waiting for us when we head for the parking lot. We all need spaces of shade to rest in, spaces to rejuvenate. We all must leave the movie theater at some point and enter the tumultuous fray. Oh, but how serendipitous and bittersweet the paradox was to recognize I’d been wearing my Mickey Mouse t-shirt during this experience.

That was truly a gift.