I’ve finally been able to see Sean Baker’s 2017 film The Florida Project, and wow, what a great film it is. The trailer caught my eye last year not only for its glorious use of color, but its nearness to my life in Orlando for over a decade. The film is set on that stretch of highway in Kissimmee that any Central Floridian knows as the brightly colored area with all sorts of road side kitsch, dive gift shops, and motels. The film showcases many of the most memorable locations: Orange World, the wizard gift shop, the mermaid gift shop, one of O-Town’s many Twistee Treats, and its setting at the very-purple (and real) Magic Castle Inn.
My childhood in Florida did not involve 1-star tourist hotel living or the moral squalor that the children have to battle with their imagination, but it did involve times of financial struggle throughout. We were blessed with the ability to frequent many of the major theme parks in better times, but we also had moments where we had to find the absolute cheapest food options in town and seek fun in other ways. While Disney provided some of the most exhilarating good times and joy I’ve had in my life, other attractions and cheap eats provided the backdrop to some of my many fond memories there (including Kissimmee’s Old Town, on the same road but not in the film).
The road the film is set on was one of my earliest memories of Florida. We visited Disney before we moved there when I was six years old, and I remember being wowed by some of the garish storefronts then. I thought of them again when I was told we were moving there. I was going to be living near the store with the giant wizard on it?
Fortunately, we didn’t live on that stretch and my life was much better than what’s depicted here. Still, the film is familiar in a way that feels nearly documentary-like if not for the artistry of its cinematography and acting. There’s many little moments in the film that sound that elusive ring of truth. One of my favorites is when Willem Dafoe shoos off a few ibis birds in the middle of the road. If that’s not a true Florida problem I don’t know what is.
The film wonders, does poverty fuel the imagination? What do we do in a society where a seven year old child is trying to take swimsuit picture selfies and twerking in accordance to the cultural norm? What is the fuel in her imagination, the activities of her destitute mother, or the wonder of the competition between the natural world and the cartoon tourist landscape that she lives in?
This is simply one of the most beautiful and compelling films I’ve seen in a while, one that balances the line between the soft glow of a childhood lived with verve and the harsh realities that threaten the kingdom of the mind. My idea of a film that looks at a realistic slice of life successfully is that it is full of sympathy and love for its subject, but is not without strong constructive criticism.
We could all use a reminder on what makes the true happiest place on earth.