“The Florida Project” is a momentous film about white poverty in the face of commercial America. A six-year-old girl living with her single mother in a motel in the shadows of Disney World discovers herself and the reality of her mother’s economic condition. The movie exposes the often disregarded, neglected side to homelessness in which someone has a roof over their head, but is in no way living in a ‘home.’ It depicts the unexpected community and inter-reliance among extended-stay motel guests.
Moonee (breakout star Brooklynn Prince, who adorably just met Millie Bobby Brown of “Stranger Things“) lives with her young single mother in a purple castle with hundreds of rooms – a motel on the outskirts of Orlando named “The Magic Castle.” In the Florida’s summer heat, Moonee passes time making new friends, playfully combating Bobby, the motel’s manager (played by the gripping Willem Dafoe), and getting on with her destitute, yet fiercely protective mother. The story may remind you of the children’s book “Eloise”, while the set may remind you of a grungy “Moonrise Kingdom” or “Grand Budapest Hotel” (both Wes Anderson films; Dafoe stars in the latter).
The film is entertaining in an unconventional way, given its repetitive nature and slow narrative development. A variety of still shots of the “Disney Strip” businesses that Moonee and her two friends, Scooty (adorable and defiant, played by Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (naive, tag-alonger, Valeria Cotto), frequent provide both the visual and socio-economic landscape that the children live in. They are surrounded by Disney resort hotels and ice cream parlors – but also strip clubs, social service offices, and a drug den of abandoned colorful row houses that serve as the kids’ amusement park. Theirs is not ‘where dreams come true,’ but rather where they daydream of having their own bed, a view of a lake, and a fireplace (in which they light an impromptu fire that causes the house to burn down accidentally).
Moonee’s repetitive and leisurely actions, which pass the time and bring her joy, are a metaphor for slow, humid Florida summers and lives defined by circularity without much larger meaning. They also make it easier to watch the extent of her mother Halley’s desperation and provide stark contrast between the bright colors and innocent childhood silliness and the real-life despair of poverty and homelessness.
One such repetitive action becomes more than just an analogy. We see Moonee take a bath, giving her toy horses a bath too, while listening to loud rap, time and time again. It becomes clear that this isn’t just another depiction of her daily routine: it’s her mother’s method of shielding her from what she really needs to do to pay rent – prostitution.
I fell in and out of love with each character. Director Sean Baker was steadfast in meeting his characters and his audience, where they were at: he draws from us in equal parts judgement, suspension of belief, and empathetic compassion for all of the story’s players. This follows Baker’s 2015 film “Tangerine” in the same regard. Halley is masterfully played by the scary-good Bria Vinaite. The story lends itself to easily calling Halley an unfit, welfare-hogging mother, as society no doubt would. Vinaite definitely tempts you into this direction with her tattoo-saturated skin and blue hair, capricious impulsivity, and defiant glares in the face of authority (even the legal authority of the Department of Children and Families).
Her relationship with her daughter and Bobby is the film’s central narrative source. She is more of a sister than a mother figure, allowing Moonee to eat whatever she wants, wander miles away from the Motel, and get away with her pranks and stunts with nothing more than a sarcastic semi-reprimand.
Moonee recognizes every single not-so-ok-for-a-6-year-old-to-see thing that occurs in her chaotic microcosm and asks her mom about them, to which Halley always responds, “Nothing, baby, don’t worry about it.” Bobby undertakes the tough balance of being the motel’s primary rule-keeper and rent-collector, while feeling the need to serve as a father to both Moonee and Halley.
Despite the cursing, punishment, disdain, and overly subtle acts of love from the adults in Moonee’s life, she remains strong and resilient, if (age-appropriately) naive. She is at her breaking point at the very end of the film, marked by her singular deterioration into crying throughout the film.
Ultimately, Baker pushes audiences to recognize the power in Halley’s societal defiance and unique maternal nature. Ultimately, all she wishes for is (relatively easily attained) financial stability and a home to call her and Moonee’s own. But if it weren’t for these dreams, which can in moments of complete desperation be the only source of comfort, would the pain be worth living through?
The film’s overwhelming cinematic stylistic value and potent content make it easily one of the year’s best and hardest to watch films to date. It’s well worth the lingering uneasiness that could sit with you a couple hours after viewing.