Once upon a time, a little girl named Moonee lived in the Magic Castle with her mother.
It sounds like the start of a fairytale. A fantasy. In a way, it is. Because while the Magic Castle may be a motel on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, and Moonee’s mother Halley has more issues than Snow White has dwarves, The Florida Project treats the fringe society of motel dwellers with the sort of reverent artistry typically reserved for tales of the rich and glamorous. While filmmaker Sean Baker had already demonstrated his interest in telling deeply empathetic stories of outsiders and outcasts in Starlet and Tangerine, his sixth film soars to new heights in terms of visual mastery.
Almost romantic in its gaze, The Florida Project feels rose-tinted and yet clear-eyed, a careful composition of neon and vibrant pastels that treasures what would stereotypically be disregarded as “trashy.” It sees the beauty where others would zero in on the dirt — without sanitizing the dirt, which is precisely what elevates the film from notably unique to a class all its own. Moonee’s gorgeously framed, sumptuously colored world is full of trash and clutter and abandoned beer bottles. There are bedbugs and food handouts and desolate abandoned housing projects. And the camera regards it all with equal devotion.
The quality that makes The Florida Project so astounding is not so much that it does anything truly unheard of, but that it merges two cinematic lineages generally considered diametrically opposed. On days when I am feeling particularly cynical about the state of cinema, it seems like there are really only two categories of independent drama film: miserable rich people and miserable poor people. The former has auteurs like Michael Haneke and Sofia Coppola, the latter includes basically any and all films belonging to the neorealist school and its various offshoots.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with making films matching either of these descriptions, as a viewer, the implications present in these two strongly codified schools can present some issues. Namely, both my empathy and interest in the 0.01% problems of the rich and powerful have limits, and the heavy-handed messaging of “look at these sad poor people” films can often veer into uncomfortably exploitative territory.
Even beyond that, there’s the simple matter of repetitiveness. Oh, look, another film about depressed rich people that meditates on Big Questions while luxuriating in the sumptuous visuals of their Instagram-worthy ennui. Imagine, another social issue drama about how society screws over poor people. (I’m sure the elite film festival-going crowd will really connect with this one.) Yes, we all get it, life is depressing and unfair and the state of the souls of the rich can be dubious.
As dismissive as all this may sound, there have been many genuinely great films matching both these descriptions. But even the same flavor of greatness over and over again gets old.
Going into The Florida Project for the first time armed with nothing more than a vague sense of the general premise, I anticipated one of those “sad poor people” films. After all, the logline was textbook neorealist down to the child protagonist, an enduring staple of that filmmaking lineage from Bicycle Thieves to The White Balloon. But what I saw instead was something that blew all my expectations out of the water. As mentioned, these two filmmaking lineages have become considerably codified with time. In taking a concept fundamental to one and adopting an aesthetic typical to the other, The Florida Project defies both lineages by combining them in a move not just daring but also thematically poignant.
While the visual style is luxurious and almost romantic, the film’s story is the exact opposite — an ultimately gut-wrenching tale of the loss of innocence, as harsh reality starts to intrude on Moonee’s fantastical interpretations of the world around her. Her adventures and safaris (read: walk to see a field of cattle) and general ability to see life as her own personal fairytale begins to give way as Halley finds herself unable to secure regular employment and starts making more and more desperate choices, hawking perfume in hotel parking lots until proprietors chase her away, selling off the few items of value she and Moonee own, and trying to pinch pennies wherever possible before eventually soliciting sex work. While the film aligns itself firmly with Moonee save for a handful of poignant exceptions, there’s plenty of space left for the viewer to read between the lines. For instance, unsupervised bath times accompanied by a radio to drown out the sound of her mother spending time with “friends” in the next room presents perhaps the most succinct embodiment of the Moonee’s precarious state, as a client eventually barges in on her oblivious playtime, shattering her illusions.
After all, Moonee is a smart kid, although not in the trite “tiny font of wisdom” way to which so many cinematic depictions of children end up succumbing, because while the imagery is vibrant and stylized the film’s characters are not—it’s a technicolor world full not of heroes and villains but flawed, realistically nuanced human beings just trying to make ends meet. Moonee’s flashes of brilliance, whether they be for good or smartassery, are scattered amongst that particular brand of randomness specific to young children (“if I had a pet alligator I’d name mine Anne”), lots of mimicking of the behavior she sees around her, and more than a few really bad ideas. She swears and she spits and she makes plans to beat up the leprechaun she’s heard lives at the end of the rainbow. But in spite of the questionable language that spews from her mouth on occasion, she’s still ultimately a kid, and woefully, wonderfully innocent. Childish glee can flourish even under harsh conditions, but there are limits, and in many ways, The Florida Project serves as a map of such boundaries as Moonee reaches, and is ultimately pushed past, them. And in the film’s final moments, when Moonee runs from the child and family services workers who would take her away from her mother and the Magic Castle, it is not the fantasy that gives way but reality, as Moonee imagines herself and friend Jancey escaping to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
From first shot to last, The Florida Project is a fairytale. For most of the film, it is a fairytale of harsh realities made joyful through the rose-colored glasses of youthful innocence. But in the end, reality proves too painful to be transformed in such a way, and fantasy has to be substituted in its stead — a “happy” conclusion that’s more tragic than a more straight-forward downer ending could ever be.