The late Roger Ebert described film as “a machine that generates empathy.” By that definition alone, there was no better picture in 2017 than The Florida Project. Sean Baker’s film is nothing if not empathic, intent only on immersing us in a place on the margins and the lives of its residents, relying not on cinematic fireworks (excluding a few actual fireworks, in one of the film’s many fleeting, gorgeous moments), but on raw humanity to leave a mark on viewers’ minds, setting the fragile innocence of childhood against the devastating pitfalls of the adult world.
Yet The Florida Project was all but forgotten on the morning of Jan. 23, when the nominees for the highest honors in film were announced. Sure, Baker’s acclaimed drama was among them thanks to Willem Dafoe’s Best Supporting Actor nomination, but it did not make the cut in the Best Picture category.
Welcome to this year’s Oscar travesty.
The Florida Project was one of 2017’s best films, packing all the emotional punch of a high-profile prestige drama while ringing undeniably true as an intimate, detailed and authentic portrait of human beings, in all their bittersweet imperfection, whose real-life counterparts are all too frequently overlooked.
The film’s title captures the conflict at its core—the Florida Project was the original name for the Sunshine State’s House of Mouse headquarters, Disney World, but it also refers to a housing project, which is essentially where its principal characters live. Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, an absolute wonder) and her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, also a star in the making) live in the Magic Castle, a shabby budget motel just outside Disney World, managed by a man named Bobby (Dafoe). The Florida Project was shot in Kissimmee, Fla., along Osceola County’s impoverished 192 Corridor, with proceeds from digital sales of the film going to benefit that very community. The film sees the Magic Castle through Moonee’s eyes—Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe paint her world in glorious pastels, calling our eyes to the mauve exterior of the motel, the vermilion dome of nearby tourist trap Orange World, the blues and blacks of the chintzy wizard atop a neighboring gift shop. But despite all the appearances of Floridian flash, Moonee and her mother live in poverty. They subsist off of old fast food that Halley’s friend Ashley (Mela Murder) is able to hand off to Moonee through the backdoor of the restaurant where she works. They sell perfume out of plastic bags in the parking lot outside an upscale area hotel, and later pretend to be guests at that hotel to get a free meal at the breakfast buffet. They struggle to get by, all while living on the fringes of a place where dreams come true. That’s all Disney ever is to them: a dream.
Some would argue that dreams are what film is for. Guillermo del Toro’s beloved The Shape of Water, for instance, is a dream, a dark, yet delightful fantasy that is part romance, part creature feature, and all Oscar gold, apparently. The film leads this year’s pack with 13 nominations, including Best Picture, an award we’ve argued that it may very well win. And while del Toro’s film is not without its allusions to the struggles of our modern reality—The Shape of Water offers, in large part, the exact kind of escapism that lures so many of us to the multiplex—The Florida Project offers no such thing. It’s not a film in love with other films, of the sort that the Academy so adores, or with historical figures and events that lend it an easy and immediate significance. It’s a film in love with human beings, one that makes its home in the Magic Castle and provides a window into lives that could so easily be real. There are Moonees growing up in that world—and Halleys doing whatever they can to provide for them—as we speak, the “hidden homeless,” who have only their imaginations and little else with which to scrape by.
Baker and his collaborators ensure that, unlike so many other films that focus on the plight of the poor, or that are anchored in the perspective of the young, there is not a whiff of condescension in The Florida Project. Baker’s focus on Moonee, her old friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and her new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) isn’t simply a gimmick to make us say “aw.” “When the kids are in shot, the camera is at their eye level,” Baker pointed out in conversation with The Guardian. “There isn’t a single moment on screen where we’re looking down on them. I wanted them to be big—kings and queens of their domain.” Moonee is larger than life as she takes Jancey for a tour of the Magic Castle and its surroundings, leading the newcomer on a safari in a cattle pasture, showing her how to talk tourists into offering up free ice cream (“The doctor said we have asthma and we got to eat ice cream right away”) and exploring an easter egg-colored assortment of dilapidated vacant apartments. Her youthful resilience is a precious and beautiful thing, a flower growing through a crack in the sun-baked Floridian sidewalk. And that makes the film’s climax all the more devastating, as Baker’s fast-paced closing shots, captured clandestinely on an iPhone without Disney’s knowledge or consent, provide a poignant denouement, a reminder that the only escape for The Florida Project’s residents is inside their minds. It’s a powerful ending that wordlessly balances bleakness and beauty, much like the ending of another Best Picture nominee, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. (The two films should share more than that.)
Ultimately, The Florida Project deserves more than just the Supporting Actor nod it received and the Best Picture nomination it didn’t. There are arguments to be made for Baker’s direction, for Zabe’s cinematography, for Prince and Vinaite’s performances. Above all, like the people it portrays, The Florida Project deserves to be seen, felt, appreciated and discussed. Baker, speaking at this week’s National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness, said of the film, “If we tell more stories of people who are marginalized, they will become less marginalized.” What better aim can film aspire to in 2017, 2018 and beyond?
Scott Russell is Paste’s news editor and a native Floridian. He insists that you watch The Florida Project. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.