A Slow-burning Socio-economic Horror Story

Not A Review - The Florida Project

Orlando is a romantic yet transient place. I lived in or around the city for a period of two and a half years after graduating college and in that time I only ever had a meaningful relationship with two people who were from there; Orlando born-and-raised. Everybody else who crossed orbits with me was – like myself – from somewhere else: Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, or – in my case – West Virginia. Many of these people left Central Florida before I did and those who are still there are – in a way – on the clock. It’s not a matter of if they will leave; only when.

Perhaps it is because I have gone in and then out of this particular social revolving door that few of the events in The Florida Project caught me off-guard. I lived in the area through Acts One, Two and Three of the global financial crisis and can vouch for the authenticity of what viewers see through the eyes of the film’s child stars. There are indeed sprawling subdivisions of empty – or incomplete, in some cases – houses or condominiums. I used to drive by them or through them on the way back to the house I shared with a good friend – a house she had bought on a GFC-induced short sale. While this was good for her and (by extension) me, it was presumably very bad for some unseen victim of hard times.

If real life were to somehow cross into this film, some of these unseen victims might have ended up in the room next door to the main characters – six year old Moonee and her mother, Halley* – at The Magic Castle, a very real hotel along Route 192 between Walt Disney World and the Orlando suburb of Kissimmee. Many victims of circumstance did end up there – or in other discount hotels in the area – and some are still there. They have a roof over their heads but can’t establish residency (a fact which causes some drama during one scene in the film) and are therefore technically homeless; members of the “hidden homeless”.

As a hiring manager in my job at the time, I used to see job applications come through with hotels listed as the address. Considering the job they were applying for paid minimum wage and offered few weekly hours, they would have been struggling just to pay the rate at the hotel. To make ends properly meet, then, other hustles had to be pursued. Some of these hustles allowed everybody to win, such as the perfectly-legal sale of theme park friends and family passes** to coworkers. Others – like dealing drugs out of the back of our workplace – were less legal and inevitably sent the person right back to where they started.

[Note: I freely and openly discuss important plot points of The Florida Project through the rest of the essay, including the very ending of the film. If you’re averse to spoilers, reading this will need to wait until after you see the film.]

The trick of The Florida Project is that we – the removed adults – see the signs of Halley undergoing this struggle (and pursuing increasingly illegal hustles), but we see it through the oblivious eyes of her child. In this way the film plays differently for the two different perspectives. Viewed as a tale of growing up, it is unquestionably magical. Moonee and her band of friends (one of whom departs Central Florida’s revolving door when his dad whisks him off to New Orleans – presumably for the promise of work) make their own adventures, ignorant to the fact that mere miles down the road, thousands of kids are enjoying days at Walt Disney World. Not once do we see Moonee begging to visit the nearby theme park, even though her sadness is palpable in a scene where she watches her mother sell stolen park tickets to a tourist. The Magic Castle is Moonee’s very own Magic Kingdom.

However, for the adults, The Florida Project unfolds as a kind of slow-burning socio-economic horror story – like a Hitchcock film where the inevitable and inescapable end is the destitution that had only been kept just at bay. Toward the end of the film, Halley and Moonee do what all of us have thought about doing at one point or another: they stroll into a hotel where they are not staying and take advantage of the free continental breakfast. We see only Moonee’s face as she enjoys (and hilariously critiques) all that the (stolen) buffet has to offer. Eventually she concludes to Halley that they have to come back, at which point the camera cuts to her mother and reveals that she is not enjoying watching Moonee nearly as much as we, the audience, have been. When an attendant asks for her room number, Halley gives the same room number that they live in at The Magic Castle. It’s a quick line, but a poignant one: although the number might be the same in each hotel, they represent access to two very different realities.

Moments later, the two return to the less fun of their two room numbers and this duality comes into play in a significantly different way. We learn that Halley didn’t enjoy breakfast because it was actually their last supper: child services have come for Moonee. This is the tragic ending of the adult film. Moonee, however, doesn’t take her forced separation from her mother without a fight. She flees to the neighboring hotel where her best friend ‘lives’ and delivers a tearful good bye – and here is where the film is lifted from great to transcendent with the best ending I’ve seen in years.

The final forty-five seconds of the film see Moonee ‘run away’ with her best friend. They run past settings we’ve seen and toward one we haven’t: Walt Disney World. In a few moments of obvious fantasy, the two escape from their Magic Castle and arrive in the Magic Kingdom. Like room doors in two different hotels but with the same number on the outside, so are these places the same but different. Much as her mother temporarily (and fictionally) checked into a different, nicer room in order to get a free breakfast, so does Moonee check into a different, nicer room with her imagination. As the credits of the film roll over muted crowd noise from inside the park – the sounds of “the happiest place on Earth” – the audience slowly realises that two tragedies have unfolded here. Not only has Moonee been taken from her mother, but her response to this turn of events was a failed attempt to do the same thing that almost everybody in Central Florida eventually does, but which she will likely never be able to do herself: leave.

* Those who have read Freakonomics will recall that Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner were able to establish correlations between names such as Moonee and the level of education obtained by the mother. The relationship doesn’t bode well for Halley, which is a thread that could spawn a whole other essay about this particular film.

** You can’t trip in Orlando without falling into five people who either work at or know somebody (or several somebodies) who works at Walt Disney World or Universal Studios. Friends and family park passes are a kind of sub-currency among non-tourists in the area. As dark as that might sound, my own memories of the phenomenon are of inclusion; of being a ‘local’ without being a ‘townie’.

Ali Barter And The Listlessness Of Being

Sometime in early 2016 I was sitting in Wheat Café in Newtown when I heard a catchy tune cascading from the speakers inside. It had everything that initially attracts me to new music: unique vocals, face-melting guitar and a clean structure that builds to an explosive finish. It turned out to be Far Away by Ali Barter and upon repeat listens I began to feel like it was a song written about me; a song that gave definition to a certain kind of listlessness that not infrequently colors my days (“Spent too much time on freeways and internet / I’ve never felt so far away”).

As it turns out, Ali Barter had me right where she wanted me.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, the French-Algerian philosopher and writer Albert Camus examines the nature of what he calls “the absurd man”. In short, an absurd person is one who has accepted that life itself is inherently meaningless (that is: absurd). One example of an absurd life that Camus explores in the essay is that of the actor. To Camus, the actor is an absurd person whose interest in theatrical shows is concerned with the limitless potentialities that it offers them to live other lives. On the stage, the absurd person can live a thousand lives in the span of one actual lifetime, allowing them to “accept the poetry without feeling the sorrow.”

The absurd man begins where [the thoughtless man] leaves off, where… the mind wants to enter in.

Though I am no actor, this notion of “entering in” reflects the way that I interact with art in all forms. When an artist or an artwork seizes my attention, I want to know more about it. I want to understand the motivation behind it. I want to know what made it it. Put simply: my “mind wants to enter in.” Anybody who has ever gone straight to Wikipedia after watching a movie that was “based on a true story” knows the feeling that I’m alluding to here.

So I do “enter in” and immerse myself in these other worlds. Every now and again (though not frequently enough for my tastes) I encounter likeminded people when I arrive there. In the same way that actors meet other actors on a stage, so do I sometimes encounter others who seem to share my reality; others whose minds have likewise “enter[ed] in”.

Having “entered in” to the work of Ali Barter, I found not only Ali herself but also the worlds that she defines through her art. Considered individually or as a total body of work, Barter’s songs define worlds in a way that reveal her as a thinker against Camus’ criteria:

To think is first of all to create a world (or to limit one’s own world, which comes to the same thing).

It would seem that these are indeed Barter’s methods, and she uses the two interchangeably. In any given song she’ll either create a world from scratch (as in songs like Marigold and Run You Down) or – more often – she’ll bring in the boundaries of observable reality (as in Cigarette and Far Away) to create a digestible slice of reality that is representative of all the other slices. In either case, the world that Barter creates ends up feeling like the world in which you live.

By creating these familiar worlds, Ali Barter is hoping to grant you the freedom to live within them. In his essay, Camus examines Dostoevsky’s character of Kirilov as a case study of the existential freedom that comes with embracing absurdity. Camus writes about the possibility of becoming a “tsar” by living with absurdity within a practical life and thusly being “covered in glory”. Kirilov aims to grant others this same freedom by committing suicide (thereby proving that the freedom is absolute) but Barter doesn’t need to make a martyr of herself to accomplish the same end. For her, it is enough to acknowledge the inherent absurdity of modern life – the listlessness, if not exactly meaninglessness – so that we can each take the next step on solid footing.

This listlessness, then, becomes a common theme in her songs (and thus, her worlds). In Far Away she observes that “People walk in a trance / They never listen.” Her character (being a version of herself) in the video for Hypercolour rocks out for a crowd whose disinterest in her performance is painfully obvious to her (“I spent the summer in darkness pining for sun”). Meanwhile, Ode 2 Summa perfectly captures the aimlessness of a sweltering summer day (“Life’s a bitch and then you die / But it’s too hot to fuck, too hot to sing”) and her latest single Cigarette finds Barter’s avatar/character “Tired of standing next to you / With nobody caring what I do.”

Ali knows that each of these characters possesses the freedom that comes with absurdity, yet she is also very aware that this freedom is rarely exercised. If these worlds feel a little familiar, don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s some deceptive trick – these are absolutely the worlds in which you already live. They are the stages of theatres that Barter is inviting you to share with her – stages on which you can both live as tsars covered in glory if you can learn to endure your freedom.

If you see a little of yourself in one or more (or maybe all) of these listless characters, then you are – as I was – right where Ali Barter wants you. Her songs end up sounding like ones that you would write about your own life if you happened to be a musician; they seem as if they’re about your own personal experience. Not in the way that songs with universal appeal sound like they’re “about us” by serving as a mirror in which we can see ourselves, but rather as a painting – rendered by another hand – of something undeniably and unshakably familiar. They are about everybody at once while also being about nobody in particular and yet they feel deeply personal – so much so, in fact, that it’s easy to become quite possessive of them.

If it’s a musical sleight of hand, it’s not one executed to trick you but rather to awaken you to your surroundings. Without putting limits on herself as an artist, Barter invites you to enjoy her songs on any level. Each is insanely catchy, built on an intoxicating sound and constructed with a tried-and-true structure. This is enjoyable enough on a superficial level, but she rewards those who are willing to look deeper and examine the subtext of the worlds she’s invited you to share with her.

Ali accomplishes this in a few different ways, but always with simplistic strokes. In Community she employs melancholy and nostalgia in framing a night out as a quest for inclusion and connection; for belonging.

Community reminds one of the story of Sisyphus, whose struggle Camus examines in his essay. Sisyphus was doomed to push a massive boulder up a mountain only to see it roll back down, requiring him to push it up the mountain again and again in futile and eternal repetition. The character in Community likewise seems to have been pushing a metaphorical boulder (“Drink myself to death on a Saturday night”) up the same mountain over and over again (“Give me everything and more / You know it’s never enough”). It’s a pattern, Ali knows, that we all get stuck in from time to time.

By mining these familiar truths, Barter accomplishes what Camus considers in his essay to be the “good” relationship between the artist’s experience and the work that inevitably reflects it:

That relationship is good when the work is but a piece cut out of experience, a facet of the diamond in which the inner luster is epitomized without being limited.

Whether you consider the character in Community to be you, Barter, your best friend, or some faceless fictional partier matters not. What matters, Camus tells us, is whether or not you think the character is finding pleasure in the face of this repeated struggle.

One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

On the surface Community is a “celebration of the ordinary” that would please Camus – a tribute to good times (perhaps enjoyed in pre-lockout Kings Cross, where the video for the song was filmed) – but there are clearly layers to the worlds Barter has created here and in other songs.

Consider the example of Girlie Bits, one of Barter’s most popular tunes. The song has been popularly described as a “feminist anthem” and it certainly sounds like one (this, of course, being merely the surface layer). While this label isn’t at all inaccurate (or, I imagine, unwelcome by Barter), it doesn’t totally capture the subtly powerful manner in which the song goes about being such an anthem.

Girlie Bits doesn’t yell at you, call anybody out, or tell anybody what to do. The song doesn’t operate on the assumption that any of sexist attitudes referred to in the lyrics (“Give us a smile, Princess / It’s better for business”) will come as a shock to you. In fact, Barter is betting that it will all seem very familiar indeed to male and female listeners alike; that these examples of the ways in which women are frequently marginalized are so prevalent in our society that the unenlightened eye might mistake them as being normal. This world is absolutely your world and the subtext (that is, the “inner luster” layer) becomes immediately and painfully clear: we see (and/or suffer) these injustices with frequency – so what are we going to do about it?

Barter, for her part, isn’t stopping with songs that might make us reconsider the actions of our skeevier acquaintances. For the past few months she’s been using short but moving posts on her Facebook page to highlight the powerful female singers (which she calls History Grrrls) that have inspired her through the years. In longer form she’s been railing against a musical status quo that has been perpetuated by a historical narrative that often refuses to see female musicians as legitimate artists. It’s easy to see that she’s trying to create and step into a role of an empowerment agent that she had to go largely without in her own developmental years. By taking on this role, she hopes the female artists of tomorrow will grow up in a world where the legitimacy of their work is never questioned.

Importantly, she recognizes that her role as an artist is inextricable from her role as a person. Camus highlights the importance of this relationship in his exploration of absurdist creation. He posits that an absurd artist is not so different from a philosopher:

The idea of an art detached from its creator is not only outmoded; it is false.

For the same reason as the thinker, the artist commits himself and becomes himself in his work.

This much holds true with Barter. As seen in the example of the subtext found in Girlie Bits and how this aligns with her interest in advancing a discourse toward achieving gender equity, Barter is as much thinker as artist and these two modes of her intellect are inextricably linked. Girlie Bits loses its bite if it’s not written by Barter and Barter can’t disrupt the status quo in a manner authentic to her own ideas without writing Girlie Bits.

All of that to say: whatever you think of it otherwise, Girlie Bits is more than “just a song”. It’s a song written by a certain person in a certain way under certain circumstances and for a specific reason. To merely listen to the song (or any of her others) and not consider these circumstances (the art as an extension of the artist) is to miss what she’s freely and nakedly offering you. It’s akin to walking into the cinema late and seeing only the end of the movie.

If Ali Barter the person can’t be removed from the songs of Ali Barter, then those same songs have the effect of making you feel as if you grew up alongside her. Each track becomes an existential comfort zone into which you can settle and allow the rhythm to wash over you or from which – on a different day, having finally seen something that Barter has already mined for “internal luster” – you can launch your revolt against inequity, an aloof romantic partner, a hot summer day, consumerism, or the fear of missing out.

Ali’s songs (and by extension, her worlds) are – in spite of the meaninglessness they acknowledge but refuse to succumb to – ultimately hopeful. In this way her art avoids being absurd in the purest sense, but even Camus recognises “that hope cannot be eluded forever” and this speaks again to the freedom that Ali would like us all to recognise that we possess. Even Sisyphus, bound as he is to his eternal fate, enjoys – within that “world” – absurdist freedom and is thereby capable of happiness. The key, as we have seen, is that he uses his freedom to choose that happiness.

Like those of us caught exactly where Ali wants us, her character in Cigarette is beginning to notice that something about her reality is a bit sterile. Here Ali has tightened the fences of reality on a character who is only just beginning to become fully aware of the form those fences take: in this case, gender normative romantic expectations and the mundanity of merely “being”. She wonders what measures would be necessary to escape these shackles (“If I shaved my head would you / Tell your friends you don’t really care / Really care”) but by the time she’s warning the unidentified “other” in the song to not ask her for a cigarette, it becomes clear that such measures aren’t necessary. She need not replicate the gesture of Kirilov’s suicide in order to obtain her freedom, she need only to embrace that she has always possessed that freedom.

To paraphrase her own words that I quoted at the beginning of this piece: as well as she understands the energy it takes to have to face these feelings every day, she also knows she’s not the only one who wakes up trying not to feel that way. By illustrating that we all possess the freedom of Ali Barter the person, artist and avatar – and that we need only choose happiness, as Camus would like us to believe Sisyphus did – she reveals herself as something vitally important in the present moment: a conqueror.

From Camus:

The conquerors are merely those among [us] who are conscious enough of their strength to be sure of living constantly on those heights and fully aware of that grandeur.

Ali Barter chooses revolt rather than surrender – to live fully and happily as a tsar covered in glory – in the face of inherent meaninglessness. Each of her songs is an invitation for us to do the same and we all possess the freedom to accept that invitation. All that remains is to choose to do so.

Greg Joachim is a writer of fiction and non-fiction when not working as a PhD candidate and academic at the University of Technology Sydney. He resides in Sydney with his wife, Claire.

Reach out on Twitter: @gregjoachim