Critics of neoliberalism discuss the economic rationale that individuals have broadly come to internalize in the 21stcentury. This neoliberal rationale, as Wendy Brown, Jamie Peck, and others have designated it, produces self-interested, entrepreneurial subjects and at the same time legitimizes practices and policies that exacerbate inequality and further marginalize already vulnerable populations in U.S. cities. This essay addresses the problems and contradictions contained in this neoliberal rationale through a discussion of Sean Baker’s film The Florida Project (2017), which addresses the exigencies of poverty under neoliberalism. Living transiently in motels outside of Walt Disney World, the characters in Baker’s film are those individuals who have been left out of the uneven growth produced by neoliberalism. Baker’s protagonists continually make “bad decisions”—impelled by the impossible circumstances in which they find themselves—that complicate our efforts to sympathize with them, thereby challenging viewers to unknowingly adopt a neoliberal rationale in their condemnation of the characters’ behavior. Viewers, I argue in this essay, are interpellated into interpretive postures that operate on a neoliberal logic as they confront the “failures” of Baker’s characters. By adopting experimental narrative strategies that invite viewers into these reflexive subject positions, Baker’s film requires viewers to explore the psychological dissonance produced by neoliberal rationale as it shapes our thinking and behavior.
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