Rethinking an Analysis of The Florida Project
A film that stays with you does so through a substantial and meaningful story structure.
Time reveals all in everything we do. As an initial understanding fades, a better appreciation of purpose and intent rises to the surface. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a film the first time around—a great story forces you to work your way through to its message.
And the Dramatica theory of story gives you the tools to arrive at that better understanding.
Sean Baker's The Florida Project haunted me weeks after my first viewing. Relating the story of a mother and a daughter struggling to survive on the outskirts of Walt Disney World, this film portrays an air of reality that stalks your every waking moment. As someone involved with Dramatica for quite some time, I know this feeling to indicate a healthy and vibrant storyform—something meaningful behind the scene.
After a month of watching a hunch grow into a certainty, I returned to my original analysis of The Florida Project to find it lacking substance:
The Florida Project, while stunning and socially relevant, fails to encapsulate an argument with the framework of a complete story. The result is a lack of attachment, a distancing from the predicament portrayed. It is as if we’re watching a beautiful reenactment of real-life events, rather than actively participating in a collaborative attempt to resolve the conflict at hand.
I no longer felt this way.
Two events added to my disconnect: a post on the Discuss Dramatica boards and a conversation with Dramatica Story Expert Jon Gentry after our recent Users Group Meeting. The former saw a correlation between those films in 2017 that scored high on Rotten Tomatoes and the presence of a "solid" Dramatica storyform. While outliers exist, those films that breech 95% do so because of their stable story structure.
Hearing Jon express his love and admiration for the film was the final push I needed. I returned to Dramatica with the intent to unravel the code behind The Florida Project's powerful message.
An explanation of Author’s intent
The Dramatica storyform is a blueprint of Author’s intent. My first clue revealed itself in an explanation how the filmmakers shot the final scene:
Baker filmed the final scene at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom Park "very clandestinely", using an iPhone 6S Plus without the resort's knowledge. To maintain secrecy, the filming at the resort used only the bare minimum crew, including Baker, Bergoch, cinematographer Alexis Zabe, acting coach Samantha Quan, Cotto, Prince, and the girls' guardians. Baker intended the ending to be left up to audience interpretation: "We've been watching Moonee use her imagination and wonderment throughout the entire film to make the best of the situation she's in—she can't go to Disney's Animal Kingdom, so she goes to the 'safari' behind the motel and looks at cows; she goes to the abandoned condos because she can't go to the Haunted Mansion. And in the end, with this inevitable drama, this is me saying to the audience, 'If you want a happy ending, you're gonna have to go to that headspace of a kid because, here, that's the only way to achieve it."
That final shot reveals Moonee retreating into an even higher level of fantasy. This scene sets a Main Character Resolve of `Changed and a Story Judgment of `Bad. While the director refers to "a happy ending", from an objective Dramatica point-of-view the argument posed is one of Tragedy. This fantasy life is not a "Good" thing.
More importantly, this explanation confirms the intent to argue or communicate something more profound beneath the surface.
A storyform exists.
Riding the wave of narrative elements towards a better understanding
My first stop was the Element of Non-accurate for Halley (Bria Vinaite), Moonee’s mom and Influence Character. Her inappropriate behavior and inadequacy as a mother challenge and drives the young Main Character to grow into those delusions. Halley's obstinate and fixed state-of-mind influences Moonee’s hopeless predicament (Influence Character Throughline of `Mind and Main Character Throughline of `Universe).
While running yesterday, I conceptualized the connections between the Influence Character and Objective Story Throughlines. Knowing the Steadfast Character of a narrative shares the same Focus and Direction with the Objective Story Throughline, I started to guess at the dynamic pair resting with Non-accurate and Accurate.
After twenty years of Dramatica, I know by rote the top three levels of the mind. Classes, Types, Variations—those are easy to remember and unique to each Domain. The bottom level, the 64 Elements, repeat within each Domain, their arrangement shifting according to the context above them.
As I ran, I thought Non-accurate and Accurate shared an Issue of Worth with Ending and Unending. I liked that, as I could see Halley focusing on the end of each month and doing whatever she needed to keep her unstable, yet workable, living conditions perpetually cycling.
I followed those Elements over to the Psychology Domain and Concern of Being. The Objective Story Throughline of The Florida Project points out the dysfunctional ways of thinking that lead to this situation in Orlando. Tourists and residents looking the other way, pretending the problem doesn’t exist, defines the inequity everyone faces in this story.
The mother/daughter relationship of conning innocent tourists out of money, both overt and behind the scenes (with Moonee in the bathtub) strengthens this focus. An Objective Story Throughline of `Psychology and an Objective Story Concern of `Being require a Relationship Story Throughline of `Physics and a Relationship Story Concern of `Doing—which fits perfectly with their precarious relationship.
Result: the ramifications of a specific effect
Result felt great.
A paradigm of story based on Author’s intent
The Dramatica theory of story—what makes it so tricky for Authors to understand—pinpoints what the story is about, not what the characters think is going on. The characters in The Florida Project don’t consciously or subconsciously go around worrying about the Results in their life—the Author is making a statement regarding the results of this society we’ve constructed. He shines a light on the Results of all of us turning a blind eye—of knowing what is going on—yet not doing a thing (an excellent indication of the Objective Story Issue of Knowledge), and showing the tragic circumstances that inevitably arise.
I knew Results was the right Problem Element for both the Objective Story and Main Character Throughlines. A narrative with a Main Character Resolve of Changed positions the same problematic element at the heart of both the objective and subjective views of the story. Moonee fails to ever take responsibility for the results of her actions—fallout from her unique position at the fulcrum between these two Throughlines.
Confident that I found the right Throughline—all while exercising—I returned home, grabbed my phone, and loaded up the Subtext—
—only to find that I was wrong about the arrangement of Elements.
Working towards the right answer
With the new Element model in the Atomizer, one easily navigates from one Domain to another. The entry page for Non-accurate not only present a list of examples and definitions but also paints a picture of its contextual families.
I liked that Result and Process were in there, but as Focus and Direction, they seemed entirely off. Clicking on Result showed me that it shared a quad with Proven and Unproven under Knowledge. The Issue of Knowledge sparked my initial thoughts about everyone knowing and looking away, but I couldn’t resolve Proven and Unproven with Moonee’s Throughline. Neither direction, from Proven to Unproven or Unproven to Proven, felt like the story of a young girl regressing into fantasy to save herself.
So instead, I went the other direction.
If Results was the Problem—as I previously thought—what would that mean for Halley’s Influence Character Throughline?
Tapping Unproven revealed the quad of Proven and Unproven, Cause and Effect under the Mind Domain. Effect as a Problem or source of drive for Halley?
A quick glance at the list of examples of Effect in action gave me all the proof I needed:
Of course. Having a Negative Effect on Someone. Once again, Dramatica is not identifying what Halley herself sees as a problem—it's what the Author sees as her problematic influence. Halley doesn't lament the effects of what is going on around her, nor does she feel she needs to have a more significant impact on others. By portraying Halley the way he does in The Florida Project, Sean Baker is saying that it’s a huge problem the kind of effect this mother has on her child.
The rest of the storyform exploded in my brain like a hundred million stars going supernova all at once.
Confirming the new storyform
Result and Process find a home under an Issue of Security with Cause and Effect in Moonee’s personal Throughline. The issue of security and the insecurities she feels stranded alone for long stretches of time fuel the kind of fantasy life Moonee needs to survive. The fact the young girl so easily avoids blame by re-channeling her energies towards creating all sorts of equally problematic chain reactions confirms a Main Character Focus of `Cause and a Main Character Direction of `Effect.
The Relationship Story Issue of `Wisdom makes a strong statement about parental stupidity and its effect on the child. Interestingly enough, the storyform flips my original observation that they moved away from Ending and into Unending. One can see the broader connection that exists beneath a shared appreciation of this situation going on forever and ever and finding some way to bring it all to an end (Relationship Story Focus of `Unending and Relationship Story Direction of `Ending). The Relationship Story Benchmark of `Learning finds relevance in the caseworkers learning about this toxic relationship and of Moonee learning what others think of her mother.
A better appreciation of a work of art
I plan to rewrite my formal analysis. In the meantime, the complete storyform for The Florida Project exists within the Subtext.
One thing is clear: The Florida Project is a sophisticated and highly complex narrative masterpiece. The meaning, so tightly woven into the fabric of the film, takes months before it finally dawns on you: Oh, that’s what they were saying.
This is what makes story so special.
The idea that a work of art can continue to influence and impact us, even when we least expect it—when we’ve moved on and are off doing other things—that’s something only a great story can claim as its own.
The storyform bridges the gap between Author and Audience, and pulls the two closer together by granting meaning to the events of the story. By appreciating the specific elements of a narrative, we better understand the message and the intent to give us a reason to pause.
And to think.