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The All-You-Can-Eat Buffet Is the Key to Understanding the ‘Florida Project’

A look at the role food plays in the Oscar-nominated film

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A24/Florida Project

At the Holiday Inn Express Orlando-South Lake Buena Vista dining room in Kissimmee, Florida, a mere nine miles from Walt Disney World, trays of fresh fruit, muffins, assorted pastries, and bacon are set on a granite buffet table. Overflowing bowls of grapes and potted orchids also sit on the table, for decoration.

This scene unfurls at the end of the Oscar-nominated film The Florida Project (Willem Dafoe got the film’s sole nod, for best supporting actor). Moonee (played by Critics’ Choice Awards-winner Brooklynn Prince), a mischievous 6-year-old girl who lives with her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in the Magic Castle Inn and Suites motel across the street, wolfs down the aforementioned delicacies. A waitress asks them what their room number is, and Halley gives their room number at the Magic Castle.

You see, the complimentary buffet is reserved for hotel guests only, but it’s easy for non-guests to enjoy a free meal, too. “They ask for your room number to cut down on this, and when Halley gives it to them, technically she’s not lying, since they did not specify which hotel, exactly,” says Chris Bergoch, the film’s co-writer and co-producer. “In the early stages of our screenplay, that was actually how the film opened: with Moonee sneaking in and taking some food from the buffet for her mom.”

At the Holiday Inn buffet, Moonee gets to experiment. She places both a strawberry and a raspberry in her mouth, contemplating the flavors for a beat and then says, “Man oh man, that’s gross.” During the montage of her eating and drinking everything, she smartly suggests, “I wish they made forks out of candy, then you could eat the fork after your meal.” Finally satiated, she tells her on-the-verge-of-tears mom, “We gotta come here again. This is the life, man. Better than a cruise.”

However, Moonee has never been on a cruise. In fact, she probably hasn’t spent much time out of the motel environs, where they’ve been living for an unspecified amount of time. Magic Castle doesn’t have buffets. It has a soda machine. The ice maker doesn’t work. Moonee and her friends subsist on soft serve from the Twistee Treat, where they hustle customers into giving them change to purchase cones.

A24/Florida Project

Instead, access to the buffet — which offers not only abundance but also the ability to make choices — is a rare treat for the mother and daughter, who are among the “hidden homeless” population in America: those who do not have permanent housing but are neither in shelters or on the street. According to the Orlando Sentinel, “thousands” of Central Florida residents live hand-to-mouth in long-term motel rentals as opposed to in more traditional housing; though their circumstances are similarly precarious, they’re often not officially counted in yearly censuses that tally homeless populations.

Bergoch discovered this micro-culture when he visited his mother in Orlando. In 2011, he pitched the idea to his film partner Sean Baker, who came to prominence directing, producing, and writing films about people trying to survive the often-brutal but-sometimes-heroic challenges of life on the margins of society, like Tangerine (filmed with an iPhone, it takes place at Donut Time in LA), Take Out (about an illegal Chinese immigrant deliveryman trying to scrounge money), and Starlet. The Florida Project — named after the working title of Disney World — has many of the same themes.

“While this is a work of fiction, it is based on issues that are very real,” Bergoch says. According to a study by the Shimburg Center of Housing Studies, nearly 7,500 school-aged children in Florida were living in hotel and motel rooms in 2015 and 2016; a 2014 Associated Press study put the number at 1,700 families in Osceola County, which surrounds Disney World, alone.

“Our hope is that people are entertained but also might walk out thinking about the real Halley and Moonee out there,” Bergoch says. In order to craft a realistic and empathetic script, Baker and Bergoch interviewed many real-life motel denizens, including Christopher Rivera, who they cast as Moonee’s friend Scooty. (The filmmakers remain connected to families in the area through the Community Hope Center, an organization helping local low-income families.)

In the film, the specter of Disney World looms, although at no point during the film do Moonee or her friends mention the phrase. The Magic Castle is located on U.S. Route 192, the road that takes tourists to Disney, where a middle-class family of four will drop at least $3,500 on a low-end four-night vacation to Disney, with a deluxe trip ballooning to $9,700.

Comparatively, the often-antagonistic Halley pays $38 a night for her motel room; the film shows her resorting to soliciting perfume to wealthy tourists then soliciting her body to men, so she can pay her rent. The area surrounding the Magic Castle is punctuated with Edenic resorts catering to affluent tourists (the Waldorf Astoria Golf Club, for example), but it’s also littered with fast-food restaurants, chain restaurants, a Dollar Tree, a Publix grocery store, a Target, and not much else. Basically, food insecurity reigns supreme. “I lived off of the McDonald’s dollar menu for years, and [it’s] no different for many of the people who live around that area, regardless of living situation,” Bergoch says.

And the characters seem vaguely aware of this land of Mickey Bars and Dole Whip, especially when Halley steals four MagicBands (a high-tech pass that gives wearers access to Walt Disney World and its perks — total, they’re worth $1,700) and sells them to a tourist for the bargain-basement price of $400. “Have a great time,” Moonee says sadly to the buyer.

“That’s the entire spark of the film,” Bergoch says. “These kids are in walking distance of ‘The Most Magical Place on Earth’ and growing up against a backdrop that is not so magical, but despite this, they’re making their own magic and finding their own adventures. Moonee may live in the shadow of Cinderella Castle, but she lives in her own castle. She may not be able to go on the Haunted Mansion, but she can explore the scary abandoned condos a few blocks down. We tried to create parallels to the parks wherever they served the story.”

The Florida Project/A24

In Moonee’s day to day life, that fantasy extends less frequently to food. Moonee’s motel room doesn’t have a kitchen, unlike her friend Jancey’s (Valeria Cotto) room at the nearby Futureland Inn, which contains a full-sized fridge, a slow-cooker, and a turkey roaster that her grandmother bought. Spaces in shelters and motels are so cramped that they don’t permit for extra appliances, and sometimes processed foods are the easiest and most affordable options. “I make some things, but Lunchables are one-dollar,” Halley says.

Besides acting as a source of comfort and imagination, food also represents revenge and manipulation elsewhere in the film. Ashley (Mela Murder), a friend of Halley’s who also resides in the Castle, works at a diner and slips free waffles and maple syrup to Moonee and her mom. Although Ashley is employed, it’s a low-wage hourly waitress gig in which she barely makes enough for a night out. (In Florida, the minimum wage for tipped employees is $5.23 per hour.) She’s earning enough to get by to support herself and her son, Scooty — at one point Halley asks to borrow money from her — but not enough to move into permanent housing. But when Halley and Ashley have a falling out, the free meal ticket stops.

Wanting to humiliate her frenemy, Halley drags Moonee to the diner and tells her daughter to “order whatever the fuck you want. We’re staying here all fucking day.” Suddenly, the food transforms into spite. Moonee goes to town and orders strawberry waffles with “extra extra warm maple syrup,” eggs, “lots of bacon,” root beer, lemonade, and Sprite. Halley makes Ashley pack up the leftovers. On the way home, Halley purposefully drops the bag of food and stomps on it in a fit of rage. When you’re struggling to get by, the last thing you want to do is squander food.

Yet buffets, like the one at the Holiday Inn, allow people to be frivolous with their food, to a gluttonous degree. When Moonee first sees the spread, her mouth falls agape in happiness, and the scene, which unfolds with the camera directly focused upon Moonee, is laugh-out-loud funny. The easy access to the buffet means Moonee won’t have to pilfer goods for her mom, and she temporarily won’t have to hustle for food, like she does with ice cream. Her animated expression at the buffet is the most excited we see her during the film — even more than when she watches Disney fireworks from afar.

But unbeknownst to her, it’s the beginning of the end; this is her and Halley’s last supper together. Back at the motel, the police and social services are waiting to whisk Moonee into foster care, because of Halley’s work misdeeds and also because she physically harmed Ashley. As her mom gets carted away, the happy-go-lucky Moonee realizes the dire reality of her family’s situation. The smorgasbord of free waffles concludes — for now.

Garin Pirnia is a freelance arts and culture writer, and author of the books The Beer Cheese Book and Rebels and Underdogs: The Story of Ohio Rock and Roll.
Editor: Greg Morabito