Updated: Feb 13, 2022
I’m not the first one to tackle the sweet and sour ups and downs that make 2017’s greatest indie a phenomenal feat in slice of life filmmaking, but due to a recent rewatch, I figured it would be a good opportunity to consider why the film is so effective. Spoiler warning ahead.
Rather than proceed chronologically, even though there is some succession of events among the adults, it’s better to look at the high lows. A kid’s memory doesn’t organize itself upon the order of events happening – it’s a much more inexact hodgepodge of experiences marked by elation and melancholy.
Thus, Moonee’s good: shared free ice cream on a hot day, spitting on a neighbor’s car, spotting the topless woman next to the pool, finding a fast friend with Jancey, sharing waffles and yelling at the airplanes flying overhead, observing confused tourists, conducting a tour of the motel, messing around in an abandoned house, bath time, seeing the fireworks overhead, taking Jancey to her favorite tree and sharing jelly and toast, a hotel breakfast with her mom.
In some of these instances, Moonee’s actions are regarded as mischief by adults, but as the viewer, we still react with a similar effervescent joy as if we were back at that age doing the same. These are the moments that are sold in the trailer to make light of the beautiful pastel colors – the darling atmosphere – of a territory that isn’t much more than a façade for deep-reaching poverty. Moonee, however, isn’t entirely conscious of this, so her downs are instead caused by things happening directly within her little bubble.
Thus, Moonee’s bad: the realization that the house she played in is burning down, Dicky moving away, being scolded by Bobby, being told she can’t see Scooty anymore, being told she is going to be taken away from her mother.
The last of those listed is obviously the most life-altering and tragic, but excluding that, these are relatively normal instances that bring some degree of defeat to a child before they decide to get back up again. Still, there is one more level to this. As I suggested, there is a portion of the film that is comprised of adult scenarios. The situations that cannot breach Moonee’s childhood naivety. Things she cannot understand and probably will not be able to understand until several years in the future. Bobby, Ashley, and Halley are the barriers to a completely spoiled youth. These are the events that, as a viewer, we will be thinking about long after the movie, because it is only natural that the heaviest matters penetrate the deepest.
Thus, the unseen: Bobby trying to repair the damaged hotel, the pedophile, the fight on motel property, and then, in sequence, Halley losing her job, Halley’s inability to pay rent, Halley soliciting sex work, Halley beating her friend with a shoe, Ashley reporting Halley to child services.
Remembering any of these aspects of the movie immediately evokes embarrassment: was I really smiling just a few moments ago at these children enjoying themselves while picking out their food from the donation truck? Am I ignorant of the actual issues being presented in this movie? There are a lot of people who find it difficult to have it both ways: an objective, unrelenting look at people on the margins and the perspective of an enthusiastic, hopeful child who, paired with a perceptive camera, finds the light because that world is all that she knows.
This is not a fantastical movie by any means; Moonee is getting her own fill of life’s special moments without any stretch of the imagination. It’s a real person’s childhood, fraught with reward and consequence, not meant to manipulate the viewer’s emotions by upping the stakes for no apparent reason. This is only a small glimpse at a Magic Castle motel on the fringe of an idealized resort where people come to vacation and incite their children’s senses of wonder. Baker, by the way, does wonders in accentuating that parallel, certainly within that mood-upending final two minutes (an audience splitter, although I will argue on the defense).
So yes, The Florida Project can be disturbing, but it often seems heightened because we feel as if we’re watching it go down through the lens of a child. Even when Moonee is absent from major scenes, we start to imagine what drama would occur if she was there. I don’t know about the reader, but I’m very conditioned to seeing movies with themes like this remain in the adult realm because not many filmmakers dare to cross that line and acknowledge the impact such circumstances can have on kids that age when they are actually happening. Also, working with kids is tough, so the desired emotional product is not always easy to come by.
Baker does an excellent job bringing all these elements together to make for a both fiercely enjoyable and overwhelmingly tragic film that broaches both extremes. I don’t know how much of this was unscripted (the authenticity of the young actors’ chemistry suggests a lot of opportunity to follow one’s instinct), so I’m not quite sure where to allocate my credit, but the two hours feel like something you can feasibly reach out and touch. The excruciating part to comprehend is that you can.
I firmly believe that this film will hold the test of time and be regarded as one of the greatest depictions of youth this past decade. It is a mesmerizing film that implores and challenges its viewers – no direct mission, although I do recall A24 aiming to donate 5% of this movie’s proceeds from the first week of digital sales to a charity that aids families along Osceola County’s Highway – and has both political and artistic merit. I distinctly remember this film opening my eyes to a part of the world I had failed to recognize upon its release, and three years later, the effect has not quite worn off.