Mothers are infallible. They’re the safety net, the locus of belonging that makes everything else okay. This is the secret of childhood. The secret of growing up is learning that this isn’t true. The Florida Project (2017) is about a little girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who learns this at way too young an age.
In many ways, the entire film is built around the idea of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Moonee lives with her very young single mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), at the Magic Castle motel right outside Disney World. The motel, and similar ones nearby, serves as home and community for families rendered homeless by the Great Recession, including Moonee’s friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and, from the Futureland motel next door, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). The film follows these kids in their world as they while away the early days of summer vacation by getting up to shenanigans, running around screaming, begging for change for ice cream, exploring the nearby (and surprisingly beautiful) empty fields, and basically just doing what kids throughout pre-internet history have always done.
But back to those dropping shoes. Halley loves her kid and her kid’s friends, but she hasn’t yet grasped that motherhood isn’t just feeding and housing. She just wants to have a good time, and when she’s prevented from doing that, she gets out-of-control pissed; in one scene, she pulls off her menstrual pad and sticks it onto a window. She has no job skills aside from her youthful attractiveness, and early in the film she gets fired from her job as a (presumably strip) dancer. Income thus becomes the main problem of the film, and we follow Halley as she thinks up new and ever more shady ways to make money, and as the cost of her fixed daily expenses slowly rises. Her activities gradually impede on Moonee’s idyllic childhood routine: dragging her along to hawk bootleg perfume (according to Vinaite, the hawkees had no idea it was for a film), costing her Scooty’s friendship when she gets into a fight with his mom, and ultimately losing her when child services finds out she’s been turning tricks. Throughout the film, we get the sense that Moonee knows more than she lets on, but that she tries to keep her life as normal as she can, relatively speaking. Children seldom understand adult problems, and even when they do they can rarely do anything about them; all they can do is keep calm and carry on.
Rounding out this unusual and barely functional family is Bobby (Willem Dafoe) the motel manager, who has seen it all before, yet still has a soft spot for these basically decent people fallen on hard times. Dafoe plays this role to utter perfection. He gets tough on the real bad people, driving away a suspected pedophile, evicting prostituted tenants, and calling the cops when a serious altercation involving a car-as-weapon occurs in the parking lot. Otherwise, for the minor things, we see him time and again give warnings, remonstrances, and ultimatums, which nobody’s intimidated by. During one argument, Halley shouts at him, “You’re not my father!” He replies, “I don’t wanna be your father!” And yet he’s the only father figure in the film. If Halley is Chaotic Good, then Bobby is Lawful Good. (Moonee is a strange mixture of both: obedient to her mother, but because her mother is chaotic, she is too.)
Director Sean Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe have an exemplary eye for balance and angle, making economical use of the motel’s L-shape. Zabe’s ability to coax sensuous color out of natural lighting is brilliant (not actually a pun—technicolor this is not). Baker, with co-writer Chris Bergoch, finds just the right tone to meld together what are essentially a series of episodes into a unified and coherent picture of childhood, and Baker’s editing, too, is spot-on. The tone is born of the location: a real motel, with real residents (many of whom played extras), and real stories gleaned from extensive interviews. It feels real because, in many ways, it is real. The scene where Bobby shoos the birds off the driveway is real (they’re endangered, so Dafoe technically wasn’t allowed to shoo them), as are the helicopters noisily taking off across the highway every twenty minutes. But it’s the elevation of the source material into such a delicate yet layered narrative that evinces true artistry.
The final sequence, though equally brilliant, operates on a whole ‘nother level. When Moonee realizes that child services is about to take her away, she runs off to Futureland to say a final goodbye to Jancey—Prince cries so convincingly that my heart just shattered. But Jancey has other ideas; she takes Moonee’s hand, and they run off together to Disney World and the actual Magic Castle. Richard Brody calls this scene “bitter,” and it is, especially when you look up the title of the film and find that it puns on the name for Disney World before its completion. But, filmed with an iPhone at waist level and played back at high speed, the sequence is filled with the dynamism and upward-looking wonder that, in nostalgic retrospect, makes childhood so blissful, and is hence the only part of the film in which we are not just candidly observing the kids but actually joining them. That this participatory journey takes us away from child services and into Disney World, which is fantasy manifested in reality, short circuits the gap between fantasy and reality, between the imaginary worlds of children and the shared imagination of the Disney realm, between what can be but isn’t and what can’t be but is. The fantasy collapses in on itself, only to reveal that it’s more real, more substantive than reality. In other words, being taken away from your mother is as unbelievable as visiting Disney World for the first time—the culmination of two very different childhoods.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large and benefited from the post-screening appearance of, and Q&A with, producer Tsou Shih-Ching, who is Taiwanese. A portion of the proceeds from digital sales will go to the Kissimmee, Florida, Community Hope Center.