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I want to take this opportunity to discuss what we talk about when we talk about “poverty porn.” It’s a label we see applied to films like The Pursuit of Happyness, Precious, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, films whose ostensible commitment to a gritty realism, to showing people “what it’s really like,” tips over into a desperately maudlin presentation of poor people as mere objects to provoke emotional response. “Poverty porn” films are pity parties. They are designed to make people feel bad, and then feel good about how bad they felt. The characters in these films don’t matter. They have no interiority, no personality, and certainly no unlikable traits. They are cynically drawn caricatures, created with the sole purpose of “moving” an audience. Moving them to what? Who knows? Certainly not to take action against the structures of power and violent systems that create poverty. “Poverty porn” isn’t about those things. It’s about individuals who are so likable and relatable that they don’t deserve to be poor.
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is not about that, contrary to what so many reviews and reactions would have you believe. I saw this film get slapped with the “poverty porn” label so many times that it shocked me to see not a single trace of it. I won’t speculate on where people got this impression, as I don’t want to imply that anyone’s reaction was disingenuous. I can only speak for myself, and I found the film starkly opposed to the entire genre.
Outside of this line of criticism, I remember a lot of negative discussion about the character Halley around the film’s release. People found her obnoxious, despicable, irredeemable, and most of all unsympathetic. It’s that last point that I think is key to The Florida Project’s opposition to “poverty porn.” Halley doesn’t fit the “Hollywood poor” mold. She’s not a good person in bad circumstances. She doesn’t set a good example for her kid. She’s rude, apathetic, even upsettingly violent (though never to her daughter). She’s not a likable person in the slightest.
But why, the film asks, should that matter?
The core truth of the “poverty porn” film is that poor people may also be good people, and that’s unfair. These characters generally have some secret skill that eventually allows them to advance, something their film assumes the audience wouldn’t expect a poor person to have. This is the “poverty porn” version of challenging the audience. It plays on their expected disgust towards people in poverty, melodramatically revealing the character’s hidden talent as a narrative twist. “See?” these films say, “Poor people aren’t always poor because they deserve to be!”
The obvious implication in that sentence being: Sometimes they are.
What The Florida Project presents with the Halley character is an actual challenge to those same audiences. It forces them to ask themselves if they can sympathize with such a reprehensible character. Do they think she deserves better? Are they capable of wanting better for her? The discourse around the film shows how many people failed this test. The film reveals how many people’s supposed principles teeter on the edge of personal satisfaction. It shouldn’t matter whether or not Halley is a likable person. She doesn’t have to be nice, or even good, to deserve a better life for her and her daughter.
The Florida Project also has more to say about the structures that enforce inequality than any “poverty porn” film. The characters literally live in the shadow of Disney World, struggling to make ends meet right next door to the ultimate symbol of American capitalism. Baker shoots gift shops and ice cream stands and strip malls like the giant decaying ruins of Shadow of the Colossus. They tower over the characters, threatening to tip over and crush them at a moment’s notice. The characters are dwarfed by capital everywhere they turn. Even their televisions only seem to play commercials. Their world is consumed by a commercial spirit which denies them entry even as it squeezes them out. They are not the victims of circumstance. They’re the victims of a system for which their struggles are proof that it’s working as intended.
In the final scene, Moonee and Jancey fantasize about running from their homes (and the DCF agents who have come to take Moonee from her mother) and going to Disney World. Some people were taken aback by the sudden break from the film’s realistic style, but I didn’t mind it. These girls can only imagine themselves going to Disney World. At such a young age, they’re keenly aware of the fact that upward mobility is a fantasy for them. Their lives will never get any better. If I have a qualm with this ending, it’s that it is perhaps too depressing. It’s the closest the film comes to the sort of saccharine tearjerking of “poverty porn,” but it elides it by sticking to the truth of these characters’ interior lives. You’ll cry at the end of The Florida Project. But you won’t feel good about it.