Directed by Sean Baker
There’s a surprisingly funny shot in The Florida Project, a movie that concerns people who live on the edges of society. It’s a high angle, wide shot of the Magic Castle motel where low income families live, only partially attempting to conceal the permanent length of their stay. In this shot, the motel manager, Bobby (Willen Dafoe), strides through the parking lot, out to fix the broken air conditioning about which all of the “guests” shout from their respective open doors. The scene emphasizes how big of a world this small community is. It reminded me of Rear Window, with James Stewart able to peek into the lives of all his neighbors from his apartment.
This scene lets you know that this motel isn’t a vacation hotspot, even if it’s lazily marketed that way. It’s home for a lot of people who might soon or have recently considered themselves homeless.
The Florida Project doesn’t have a conventional protagonist. It isn’t Bobby, and it isn’t Halley, one of the residents who has the biggest character arcs in the film. It’s not even the children who run around the motel and the surrounding area, though their energy is certainly the focus of the film. This is a movie with an ensemble cast, and the story is less about any one character or their plight as much as it is about the community and the culture that has bred this community.
A community like this only exists in the shadows of others. In this case, it’s the shadow of nearby Disney World. Despite their proximity to the theme park, these are character who will never be able to afford such a luxury. Parts of the world are off limits to them and certainly to the kids, though they make their own theme park out of the world around them.
Though the children aren’t strictly the protagonists, the way they run and play is symbolic of the motel residents. They don’t seem to be completely aware of their limitations, but they nevertheless exist within them. Just by being children, they are restricted, but part of the charm of a coming of age story like this one is the celebration of living within certain limitations and making the best of a situation. And that’s exactly what they do.
We meet three kids who run around, from motel to motel with no supervision. They are Moonee, Scooty and a third kid who is quickly grounded and thus removed almost entirely from the narrative. Such is the plight of being a kid.
The three of them are just children, with a type of enthusiasm you’d expect, but they’re also incredibly crass and vulgar, even spitting on a woman’s car and screaming at her. They’re free spirits, in some ways, as children can be, but they’re also headed down a bad path. It’s not just the poverty that surrounds them, of which they are mostly unaware, but we quickly see how the adults in their lives are as stuck as they are.
Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) is young and no longer employed by the strip club she used to work. When the story begins she is looking for work, hoping to get a job the diner where her friend works. Halley’s search for money even to pay the rent isn’t brought up immediately because most of the story is seen through Moonee’s eyes, and Moonee is completely unaware of their economic standing.
Halley takes over more of the narrative when she and her friend, Scooty’s mom, have a falling out after Scooty, Moonee and a third girl, Jancy, accidentally burn down an abandoned home.
So Jancy, I almost forgot her. She’s the daughter (or granddaughter) of the woman who was unfortunate enough to have the three children spit on her car. Jancy feels much more innocent than these other children, and soon she is brought into their world. They show her around town, and soon she’s part of the group, particularly after the third friend moves out of town and Scooty is told not to hang out with them due to the falling out between his mom and Halley.
Jancy would seem to be our protagonist, the person through which we’re introduced to the world of this story, and at first she is. But then she takes a backseat while Halley and Bobby and then Moonee become the story’s focus.
Having been introduced to the goings on of this motel, we learn more about Bobby and the struggle he faces running the facility. He’s kind and looks out for his residents, but no one seems to pay him back. He does it out of the good of his soul. In one instance he gives Halley money to put her up for a night in another hotel, a monthly occasion so as to skirt the rules that prevent guests from staying in the motel permanently. She never thanks him and soon rips into him when he threatens to kick her out of the motel after it’s been discovered that she has resorted to prostitution to pay the rent.
In another scene, Bobby silently intercepts a pedophile and forcibly removes him from the motel property without anyone noticing. This scene doesn’t change Bobby in anyone’s eyes. No one watches him, not even the kids, and no one has a newfound respect for him. We just get the sense that this kind of thing happens sometimes, and Bobby knows how to deal with it.
Much of the middle of the story concerns Halley’s fight with her best friend and path into prostitution. We don’t realize what she’s up to right away, just as Moonee doesn’t. In a series of shots we see that Moonee has a new bath time routine, and on third occasion, we realize that she’s sent there while her mother sleeps with paying customers.
Though the film doesn’t always concern the children, it depicts the world mostly through their eyes. They might as well be living in a completely different story than their parents, and the two stories finally collide during the film’s climax, when child services arrives to take Moonee away from her mother.
It’s a tense sequence that results in a screaming, crying Moonee running away to Jancy’s motel. In a powerful scene, Moonee pleads for… something. She doesn’t want to leave, but she knows she will, and she admits to Jancy that she’s her best friend. Suddenly inspired, Jancy grabs her arm, and they sprint through the town in a sequence shot on an iphone which only adds to the surreal nature of this improbable flight.
They run to Disney World, as an inspiring music track plays, and the film ends with them in the one area that’s been off limits this entire time.
The ending does seem to come out of left field, as the only dramatic departure from the story’s realism. Director Sean Baker shoots the scene with an iphone, likely because that’s the only way he could have filmed at Disney World. Baker shot his last film, Tangerine, entirely on an iphone.
That previous film, like this one, followed a community on the fringes of society. They were people who didn’t realize how insulated they were or even that there were limits to their world. They are the types of characters who, if they were to walk by, would immediately stand out.
Baker’s films, at least these two, seem to be a deliberate effort to normalize a world that is at first so dramatically different from our own, depending on where you’re from of course.
This film is about childhood, but the adults all seem to be a stand in for where these kids are headed. There is never any impression that they will get out of the cycle that seems to have trapped their young parents. And though there is some hope offered to Moonee and Jancy at the end, there is no hope or closure for any of the adults. The last we see of Halley and Bobby, they’re watching Moonee runaway, escaping the motel which now feels more like a prison. Scooty’s mother never makes up with Halley because this isn’t a fairytale. Sometimes bonds are broken. The last we see of her, she has two swollen eyes and a frightened son.
So this film seems to be about this vicious economic cycle where kids born into such poverty will likely never escape it. They just don’t realize they’re trapped the way you don’t realize many things about your parents when you’re a kid. I suppose that in these children we are meant to see ourselves and thus empathize with them and, by looking to the future, the adults which they will probably become.
So that final sequence is a bit jarring, but it gives you hope. Maybe Moonee will break free of these limits, or maybe the surreal nature of this sequence is meant to remind you that this is just a dream.