Spoiler alert: If you don’t want the brilliant performances and story line in Florida Project to be ruined, please don’t read. You also don’t have a lot of time—Dafoe-n’tchya want to catch it in theaters?
Americans breathe in the fumes of Fantasyland, a place where happiness is possessed. It’s tangible for those who can afford it, people who embrace the manicured lawn laid out before them every tomorrow. But Fantasyland has a mirror universe: the harsh and irrefutable Realityland as presented in Sean Baker’s revolutionary new film, Florida Project. Realityland is the place where people don’t buy magic, it’s a place where people live in the present because they must, just like the film’s protagonists, Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her six-year old child Mooney (Brooklynn Prince).
The mother-daughter duo live in a cheap motel just outside of Disneyworld in Kissimmee, Florida, ironically named the Magic Castle. The building is an aggressively cheery purple and stands along a road of pawn shops and other garish sights. Bobby (William Dafoe) owns the property and shepherds the motley crew of low-income strivers and stragglers, guiding them with a fair, but firm, hand. Halley smokes pot while stealing perfumes and peddling them to oblivious tourists to scrape up rent. Meanwhile, Mooney and her friends from the motel, Scooty and Jancey, brew up mayhem with spitting contests in the motel parking lot.
Through her imaginative feats, Mooney’s story undermines one of the most insidious and profitable myths in our country: that a sense of wonder and zest for life can be bought or experienced with material luxury. Behind this veil is Realityland, the here and now, the ever-ignored present that does not deprive, but feeds, an imagination grounded in reality. Realityland is a vicious rebellion against magical tomorrows.
Happiness versus Contentment
Almost everything sold in America will have a “happiness promise,” translated into a tangible rush of endorphins that we experience upon attaining things. Happiness is presented in a “buy and sell” model, the euphoria entangled with external circumstances. The beauty industry, a cult of external validation and appearances, grossed 65 billion in 2019. Lest we forget the seductive casinos, where people may roll away their savings in one Vegas night—in America, we threw out a whopping 73 billion in the gambling industry in 2019. Disneyworld, a place supposedly supposed to encourage the imagination while, in fact, stifling it with over-stimulation, spectacle, and consumerism, is no less a part of the “happiness promise” that has rushed in with the age of advertising in the seventies: a product is no longer just the product. The product is a feeling and a symbol that transcends the thing itself. Beauty is confidence and vitality. Winning the lottery is freedom and the good life.
MRI scans don’t lie: when we get our desires or expectations met, our brains flood with “happy” endorphins. But then, the magic dust of novelty wears off. The stimulus no longer has its effect, yet the cycle continues—we buy the newer, better thing, pushing the boulder up the like Sisyphus, condemned to watch it fall again until we buy again. This is the toil of those living in Fantasyland, a mythic hell of sorts. Just like no one makes a movie about Cinderalla and Prince Charming’s bitter divorce, no one talk about consumerism to the point of obsession: thing after thing after thing. No everlasting happiness.
This isn’t a uniquely American thing, the quest for happiness. When one pursues happiness, one often finds the need for contentment, as the Stoics realized, which represents a disposition rather than an emotional state. It comes from accepting circumstances and embracing life with gratitude. Contentment, in one sentence, comes from a deep acceptance of and appreciation for the reality of one’s life. It is the fertile ground for the play and mischief that ensues in Mooney’s Realityland in Florida Project.
Conceptions of happiness and contentment collide during Mooney’s exploits around the motel. One night, a Brazillian couple come to the run-down “Magic Castle” expecting they’d be right inside of Disneyworld on an immersive and magical anniversary. The gorgeous and clearly disappointed fiancé drops her jaw upon arrival, disgusted. She lambasts the place as a “trash heap”. In Realityland, dreams dissipate like snow falling on scorching hot asphalt. The so-called “Magic Castle” is home to exploited, working class, disabled, have-nothings.
Mooney has no interest in Disney World. She fully embraces the Magic Castle and all its flaws. She shows her new friend Jancey around the place, describing people who live there: “This guy thinks he’s Jesus,” “This woman snores so loud I can hear her from my room.” Halley, her mother, has no money to spare after rent, basic necessities, and a bag of pot. But, we never hear Mooney whine. Mooney only ever embraces her circumstance, peddling naïve customers outside of the frozen yogurt stand for money, scrounging up enough for a scoop to share with her friends.
The key difference between her and the snobby Brazilian tourist is that Mooney doesn’t place happiness in her purchase. She revels in her deviousness, roping her friends in for the hustle, inventing games on the spot when there’s nothing to do. She leaves the tantrums to the tourists; she’s too busy making magic in Realityland.
The Unhappy Ending
(**Major spoilers coming up)
Material poverty forces people to be in the moment, for better or worse. Baker doesn’t seem to have a judgement on it: it teaches you to be rooted in finding solutions quickly, in thinking about what needs to be done today. Extreme economic privilege can serve as a rainbow spreading into the far future, letting the imagination run free and wild. But what happens when you’re low-income and there is no solution? What happens when you run into a dead end sign, and there’s no fixing yesterday?
Halley finds out she won’t get a job at her friend’s waffle house. Eventually, she’s kicked out of a resort where she sells perfumes. She sells anything she can. She turns to prostitution; which Bobby immediately shuts down. Halley, with nowhere else to go, asks her friend Ashley for money, and is refused. Out of resentment for their fallen friendship, Halley beats her up, and the next day, the CPS shows up at Halley’s room to collect Mooney.
The contentment that once filled their lives crumbles on that day. The present, forced upon them by circumstance is now too unbearable, especially for Mooney, who never imagined a life without her mother. Mooney runs to the next motel over in tears, and finds her friend Jancey. We don’t know whether this really happens, but Jancey takes Mooney’s hand and they run off to Disneyworld and away from the CPS.
Although Mooney and Halley shared a flawed life, it was magical in and of itself. Yet throughout the film, we see the laws and forces in American culture that actively squeeze the poor out and into desperate circumstances. Maybe, it is not enough to be content, to explore the magic of Realityland. If you’re in America, and you’re not working for a “better” tomorrow, things will likely get worse–and when the facts are too overwhelming, too tragic to tolerate, the imagination transforms from being grounded in reality to breaking from it.
“Moments of Impact” is an original Falcon Post series dedicated to when experiences, culture, philosophy, and psychology find a meeting point, producing finely-tuned revelations. I hope you have one moment of impact every week.
Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.