Released in the year 2017, and published by A24, The Florida Project remains to be one of my favorite films of all time, as it is a story both beautiful and tragic, sour yet magical. Despite such a strange contrast, this film possesses a full-to-the-brim heart of sympathy and realism, telling a relaxing, funny, yet depressing and shocking tale that has earned its place within my filmic view, as a comfort movie. Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, as well as directed by Baker, the film is a plotless indie drama that serves as a ‘slice-of-life’ set in the summertime of Orlando, Florida. Delving into the misfitted adventures of six-year-old Moonee, the misguided efforts of her young adult mother, Halley, as well as the kind-hearted interjections of Bobby, the father-like figure and manager of the film’s (real life) location, the Magic Castle, the film juggles between these three, widely different personalities as each of them operate their day-to-day lives under the same poverty-stricken motel that also moonlights as an apartment complex.
Moonee, played beautifully by Brooklynn Prince, finds herself joyously running amuck through the Orlando area, with her similarly-spirited friend group consisting of Scooty, Jancey, and Dicky. Armed with their lack of parental oversight and age of innocence, such ingredients allow these venturous little ones to reinvent the adult-heavy atmosphere around them into a playground of opportunities like scoring free ice cream, spitting on cars, smashing the left-behind items rotting in a condemned building, and finding crawl spaces in their motel for games of hide and seek. The mischievous six-year old that is Moonee, stands as a symbol for those who make an adventure out of a misfortunate reality, whether or not, one may be even aware of such reality.
Halley, Moonee’s mother, expertly unraveled by Bria Vinate, serves as the angel and devil on her daughter’s shoulder. While Halley smothers her daughter with endless motherly love and care, and genuinely wants the best for Moonee, Halley’s own misguided nature, such as combating authority and remaining careless toward critique from both person and life, itself, clearly flows through the same mental crevices of Moonee’s easily impressionable brain. The young mother is a morally gray figurehead, who, like Moonee, serves as a poster child, but not for the same reasons as Moonee. Halley is the textbook visualization of having good intentions yet bad execution, as she is a loving mother yet cursed with a likeness of ill influence.
The film’s most recognizable star, Willem Dafoe, who wholesomely brought to life, the character of Bobby, the Magic Castle’s manager, is played off as a firm yet kind-hearted and easy-going figurehead for the children whose parents find themselves living within the rugged confines of the film’s main location. Bobby also finds himself as an (unwillingly) appointed father figure going toe-to-toe with Halley’s lack of decency and Moonee’s mischievousness, as well as striving to show a well-mannered and behaved structure to Moonee’s impressionable mindset. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, with the rock being Bobby wanting to protect Moonee from Halley’s well-intentioned yet poorly executed life decisions, and the hard place being, properly managing the Magic Castle motel’s livelihood, Bobby’s heart serves as the glue helping hold dysfunctional spirits together, away from sleeping on the street, the grasp of predators, and the harsh efforts of Child Protective Services.
Living within the same roof, Halley and Moonee, as well as Bobby, each have their own reasons for why they find themselves under the Magic Castle, a bedazzling-ly painted motel that, while appearing strangely interesting on the outside for tourists, the allure is quickly forgotten once in the presence of the living situations in which families find themselves cramming into. Such a location serves as a stroke of irony for filmmaker Sean Baker, as the motel finds itself some miles outside of Disney World, the happiest place on Earth for a child and their family, where dreams come true for anyone of any age, gender, race, and creed. The poetically ironic proximity between the Magic Castle and Cinderella’s Castle gave Baker the idea of giving this film its titular title, which was the name Walt Disney had for when orchestrating the building of Disney World… the Florida Project.
For a child like Moonee, the Magic Castle really is a castle of some imaginary sort, a kingdom, and she is its queen, reveling in the heartfelt opportunities that lie inside and outside of the ‘Castle, where friendships are waiting to be made, where adults are to be upset and offended, and where the seeds that are the potential memories of a lifetime, are eagerly waiting to sprout. While some families are able to make memories in front of Cinderella’s castle with fireworks above, Moonee and Halley manage to forge their own variations of such by dancing in front of their own castle, gleefully playing with each other as the heavy rainfall showers over them. Tourists within the film call the Magic Castle a dump, but for families like Halley and Moonee, it’s their home, it’s where some children must look in order to find happiness.
Why I absolutely adore this film as one of my favorites of all time, and why I find it so comforting, despite it being, at times, possessing a depressing and grimy presence, is due to the unapologetic honesty that is written in between the poetic lines of the reality in which it shows. The ability to see the beauty behind the social wreckage is a level of heartfelt compassion from Sean Baker that I can only describe so much with words, as my true feelings with it, lie melting within my heart. This film being my first introduction to Sean Baker, was an impeccable first impression of the filmmaker and has forever kept my eyes on his filmography until the man can no longer sit behind a camera. Such a series of plotless events, expertly demonstrates to the audience that home is where the heart is. No matter where one finds themselves, memories can be made anywhere, and home can be set anywhere.
The Florida Project’s runtime of fictional non-fiction showed me that there will always be someone or something to look forward to, to make you smile, even if that someone isn’t the most ideal role model, or even if that something is also not an ideal living space. The ability of this film to ooze heart and pain, so expertly, beautifully demonstrates the complicated DNA that runs through the veins of… life, as memories come packaged with feelings of tear-jerking moments and heartwarming times. Life is neither a force of good nor bad, it just simply is. It is a perceptually interchangeable reality built on whatever you make from it. Sean Baker’s film about a six-year-old’s misfitted adventures in and around a motel, as well as her even more misfitted mother, and the kind-hearted, father-figure-type of motel manager, will always hold a special place in my heart, despite me not being able to really relate to any of the characters or their living situations.
However, despite the lack of relation, I wholeheartedly admire Moonee’s desire for independence and adventure, as well as Halley’s love for her daughter and conviction to make things as loving and fruitful for her. Despite the seemingly sister-like duo getting into an abundance of trouble fairly often, I can’t help but sympathize with their situations. I root for them to want to continue to stay together as a family because human beings are complicated creatures. Intentions, like MANY of Halley’s within the film, are well-intentioned with increasingly awful results, however, it is important to remember that good intentions are still… good intentions, underneath it all. There is heart and passion underneath it. For those that have seen the film, whether it was one time or for the thousandth, no one of us can deny that Halley is, in plenty of regards, a bad mother, but she very much loves her daughter. I’m sure it is undeniably so, that Moonee is, in some way, shape, or form, seen as a bad seed, but all she wants to do is have adventurous fun and have a reason or two, to smile. Similarly to the duo, Bobby possesses the well-being of the motel, some see it as a “ghetto pit-stop” for tourists to gawk at, but to him, it is a home where those living within the confines of the Magic Castle’s walls, will hopefully be happy and comfortable. The main characters of the film each possess an exterior that some may see as ignorant or foolish, but there lies underneath, intentions of preserving beauty.
Moonee’s fearlessness against the adult world, and the ability to have joyous times and fun within the details of a less-fortunate lifestyle, showcases her innocence, an inspiring feat that even as an adult, I envy and admire such a perspective. To never lose one’s innocence, just like Moonee and her friends have not, is never to let the difficult and grueling aspects of life tarnish a wholesome perspective that sees the beauty and enjoyment in life. Sure, some could interpret this blissful ignorance, as a failure on Halley’s part for not teaching Moonee, better. But, to me, I just simply see it as Halley wanting to see her daughter smile, for as long as she can. Her daughter’s immense amount of freedom to explore, admittedly can be seen as a massive sign of awful parenting. But, for Moonee to have such independence, it actually shows us that despite what she may have seen, trekking through the bustling, harsh city, she still has the ability to be fun-loving and ignorant to the adult world. That I would say is a testament to her mindset. As someone like myself who strives to explore more of the spaces around me, as well as different states and really, the world in general, Moonee’s ability to explore and come back with her soul in one piece, is greatly inspiring.
Halley’s fearlessness against the adult world, conceptually is the same as Moonee’s, but otherwise remains vastly different with how she, herself, goes about such actions. As a mother, young or not, experienced or not, Halley must not be afraid of the world in front of Moonee, as a way to make sure her daughter remains innocent. For those that have seen The Florida Project, it is EXTREMELY apparent that Halley pays no mind to the authorities like Bobby, from beginning to end of the flick’s runtime. Halley does whatever it takes, not just for her own leisure, but also as a mother; this ranges from being a stripper, to stealing and reselling tourist gifts, and eventually resorting to prostituting herself within the other room by Moonee taking a bath. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending Halley’s path of action, yet I strangely give her credit for not giving up on her daughter’s wellbeing, as well as putting her neck on the line. All of this culminates back to Halley being the living mantra of having good intentions, yet it eventually unravels into a god-awful execution. Sure, while the young mother’s sense of fearlessness is immense, it is immense to a massive fault. But, this is a level of honesty that I greatly respect Sean Baker for not shying away from. Halley may be a bad mother, but she isn’t a BAD mother if you get what I mean.
The Florida Project has a beautifully casted crew of actors who bring to the script a level of authenticity that feels documentary-esque, further complimented by the film’s lack of plot. Being a plotless piece allows for the slice-of-life angle of the film to truly unravel in a direction and speed that other films confined by the three-act structure would not be able to do. Having this artistically woven timeline of cinematic events allows us, the audience, to really grow with these characters, to really understand and feel as if they are real, and not fantasized for the silver screen. We are not watching events unfold, but we are living on the sidelines of these characters’ day-to-day summer plans. Such a narrative choice to feel more like a documentary and less like a typical movie allows for the audience like myself, to really sink our teeth into Sean Baker’s filmic piece of art. When I spend time with the less fortunate lives of Halley and Moonee, as well as the hospitable nature of Bobby, it feels like I’m spending time with an interestingly dysfunctional yet lovable crew of real people who have a band of documentarians following them.
Such a film also shares an insight of real-world living situations and lives, through the souls of three, authentically created personalities that feel as real as those portraying them. As my eyes watch and walk alongside the paths that they take, I feel a sense of calmness throughout, which may seem strange to those not understand such a perspective. But, even if you do not see the calming nature of this “trashy yet warmingly personable” film like I do, you may understand my perspective a bit better when I say to you… “Well, you know what they say about train wrecks…”