I don’t think I will ever get used to watching expertly polished films about the poor, while surrounded by affluent, mostly white people in chic indie movie houses. Whenever I find myself in that situation, I can’t help but notice the irony. Though I “speak the language”, my presence in these spaces does not negate where I come from. Back home, my family is struggling. Yet, here I am in New York City, sitting in the Angelika Film Center, holding my Moleskine notebook, wearing the costume of a cultural critic.
As the film opens, we watch the children run and play. This is a different sort of play than what we are often treated to in harrowing films about children. These children curse, spit and cause mayhem wherever they go. They test their boundaries with everyone and don’t seem to respect anything. They are overtly destructive, but are permitted to continue their reign due to a constant and unwavering sympathy that every adult has for them. Their combination of charm, streets smarts and natural humor delights adults, despite their reckless nature. In these early scenes the film radiates with color and vibrancy. The cinematography is and set design makes the entire film feel like a giant, sprawling playground. The film has few close-ups, opting instead for fun set pieces, allowing for busy frames with characters in constant motion.
Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) is clearly having fun in the beginning. The first half of the film moves along at high-speed, rarely allowing us to spend too much personal time with each character. Things screech to a halt when an afternoon of horseplay goes sour. It is then that we see a shift in the characters. Much of the joy is then drained from the film. What takes its place is patch of darkness that grows larger as things become more dire for the characters. Friendships end abruptly, and financial realities begin to set in. We remember that these are people who are struggling. The film pulls the rug from under us, ending the fantasy.
The further I get into The Florida Project, my cultural critic costume begins to peel away. By the end of the film I am naked, emotional and searching through my notes trying to clutch onto anything resembling objectivity. I have never lived in a motel or had to steal food, and yet I feel a familiarity with these characters that throws me off balance. In Halley (Bria Vinaite) I see the duality of motherhood; unsympathetic to the outside world, but with a beauty in her that only her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) can see. I can’t help but think of my mother, and the many poor, troubled mothers who are seen one-dimensionally by the outside world. I wonder if the filmmakers expect the audience to savvy enough to sense that duality. Or are we supposed to fall in love with the child and condemn the mother for not being able to provide proper care?
That becomes my main conflict with the film. I am unsure how we as an audience are supposed to interpret the story. Is this a film about a mother and daughter doing their best to survive? Or is this a film about a young girl trying to overcome her circumstances with play and laughter? Are we supposed to hope for the child to be taken away from the mother? Or do we want them to survive together? The film’s underlying intention determines the success of the story.
Moonee reminds me of my younger sisters; defiantly optimistic, constantly seeking the light in every situation. For poor children, rose colored glasses are more than naiveté. They are a necessity. Coping is living, and vice versa. No child wants to resent their parents. Even in the face of abuse of neglect, children don’t want to see themselves as victims. I think this is partially because children do not often know how things could be, therefore they cannot resent how they are.
Willem Dafoe is a standout as the motel manager, Bobby. It’s odd to see Dafoe as a gentle presence in a film. He’s quiet and often soft-spoken. He shows visible discomfort when having to put his foot down and be the disciplinarian. Bobby does not want to be the bad guy and he does not look down on his poor tenants. He looks after all the residents of The Magic Castle Motel with kindness and care, but he always makes a special consideration to look after Halley and Moonee. He treats Halley like a daughter, shielding her and encouraging her to do right by Moonee and be a better mother. Frustratingly, Halley responds to his efforts with resentment and often lashes out in anger. Bobby responds to this anger with patience and a quiet resolve that only erodes when he realizes he’s running out of options to help her. Halley is a frustratingly uneven character, displaying a reckless nature with Moonee that borders on abuse. She constantly puts her daughter in harm’s way, with no instinct of protection sophisticated enough to overcome her constantly bubbling rage. I wish the film was interested in telling us what she is so angry about.
There is also the strange matter of Halley and Moonee being poor white people surrounded primarily by poor people of color. I have no quarrel with the film deciding to focus on white characters, but I do find it fascinating that the white characters in question are the most traditionally “unlikeable”. I am speaking primarily about Halley, here. She is white mother who is surrounded by latinx women who are portrayed as more responsible and more suited for motherhood than she is. Her best friend is a hard-working latinx mother who “breaks up” with Halley by the end of the film. She cuts Halley out of her life for being reckless, careless and in her opinion, a bad mother. I don’t think Baker is trying to say anything about race with his film, at least not intentionally, but the contrast between these two mothers is difficult to ignore.
The interesting thing about The Florida Project, is that the children live in the shadow of what could be: Disney World. As they run and play and cause mischief, Disney World is always there- too grand and expensive to notice them. Inadvertently, their lives are punctuated by the play they could be, rather than where they are. There is a certain poetry to that. I believe The Florida Project is a film with good intentions even though I remain unsure what they are. Is it a film about the triumph of the human spirit, even when we are faced with the worst possible situations?
Is it a film about how America neglects the poor? Or is it simply a gorgeously shot slice of life film that we are supposed to enjoy and not ponder critically?