The Florida Project: Orlando’s Invisible Community
By Imani Edwards
U.S. Route 192 is a 75-mile highway that runs east to west through Central Florida. Between its western starting point, in an area called Four Corners, and the city of Kissimmee towards the east, the highway is populated by shabby motels, knock-off souvenir shops, and cheap chain restaurants. For years I lived in this area amongst orange groves owned by your favorite juice company and commercially manufactured subdivisions. My neighbors were either affluent Europeans whom we only saw on holiday in July, or people like my family: locals whose income relies heavily on the tourism industry.
The brightly painted stucco-covered businesses on U.S. Route 192 all vie for the attention of tourists who see the Greater Orlando area as simply an extension of the biggest company in town. And for much of the area’s modern history, it has been all about maintaining Walt Disney World’s façade of fantasy and magic, much to the detriment of the locals who work up and down the highway, many of whom are Black, Brown, and immigrants.
In Sean Baker’s 2017 narrative film The Florida Project, we meet Moonee, a rambunctious six-year-old, who lives with her young mother, Halley, in a low-budget motel ironically dubbed Magic Castle, off U.S. Route 192 in Kissimmee. Just like Moonee and her mother, many of the other guests of Magic Castle are long-term, struggling to pay the weekly rent rate enforced by the caring yet stern motel manager, Bobby. It is through Moonee’s exploits around Magic Castle that we uncover a piece of Orlando that goes very often unnoticed by the millions of visitors who converge on the area each year.
For Moonee, her summer break is all about excitement and never-ending adventure. She gets caught in a rainstorm while on a “safari” with her pal Jancey, holds a spitting contest with Scooty, and spies on a topless sunbather laid out by the motel’s pool. We revel in her innocence as we watch comfortably from beyond the screen. But there is that constant itching in the back of our mind, the fear that behind any corner Moonee runs around something will be there to end the fun once and for all. For these poor motel residents who only want to keep a roof over their children’s heads, the Department of Children and Families is more of a villain than Jafar or Maleficent could ever be.
During the greater parts of the film we watch as Halley hustles together enough money to keep a roof over her daughter’s head for just one more week, and we come to understand the decisions that she chooses to make, even if they are terrible in the grand scheme of things. Because tourism is the largest industry in the Orlando area and is very much entrenched in every facet of the local livelihood, we inevitably witness its dark side, which contributes to the film’s poignant ending. Once Halley realizes that selling off-brand perfumes outside of resorts is not bringing in enough cash to pay the rent, she turns to sex work and selling stolen Disney passes to keep her child from living on the street. Though Halley may not be a great mother most times -- she smokes marijuana with Moonee sitting in the room with her and she can have a lousy attitude when confronted with Moonee’s bad behavior -- she is an affectionate friend and support system for her daughter. There are moments when we, as viewers, feel correct in wanting to judge her harshly for her rash behaviors, but these seem to be only the ways she knows how to cope with her problems. And so, while watching her play with Moonee in the rain, we glimpse her vulnerability and a sense of joy that is infectious, and that makes us feel as if everything will be okay for the pair, despite the imprudent choices she has made.
However, as I watched the final scene of The Florida Project with Moonee and Jancey running through the gates of Disney’s Magic Kingdom in an attempt to escape their somber reality, I was filled with a sense of dread and understanding. The Orlando metropolitan area is currently experiencing a severe affordable housing crisis, exacerbated by low wages that are not congruent with ever-increasing rental rates, and a consistently growing population. The area has a large amount of real estate up for grabs, but buyers are not looking to build affordable housing options that could help create more stable homes for locals like Halley and Moonee. As the area continues to expand to entice moneyed tourists, locals are being left in the dust.
The Florida Project is yet another film by Sean Baker that illuminates the lives of regular people living tenuous, yet complicated existences. These people are invisible to the rest of us; they’re the untouchables of American society, like Sin-Dee Rella, a brazen and affable Trans sex worker, from Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine. It is because Sean Baker often casts unknown actors in the main roles of his films that he is able to bring about authentic and heartrending performances. His characters and their stories feel real to us, because they truly could be reflections of real life individuals. For me, watching The Florida Project was like watching people I know: a tough breed of folks who often feel overlooked and left out, but who endure their struggles just enough to create a little bit of their own magic.