It is said that well-behaved women seldom make history. In Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, the badly behaved ones make their own. Echoing the sun-drenched colour palettes of his earlier work Tangerine (2015), Baker’s latest film opens onto a current-day motel complex in the heat of summer, a deep-lilac pastiche called ‘The Magic Castle’ in Kissimmee, Florida, where six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Price) is currently busy spitting on a car alongside her two friends, Scooty and Dicky. Trouble ensues when they get caught in the act, and the giggling trio zooms across the Magic Castle’s sprawling corridor and stairs to seek refuge in Moonee’s room. Upon reaching ‘Room 323’, Moonee leaps through the window and traipses across the small, unlit room to her bed, where a heavily-tattooed young woman of about 21 with electric-blue hair is lying in repose, wearily smoking a joint.
We soon learn the young women is Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite) and is Moonee’s mother. Confronted by an indignant but kindly motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe) about her daughter’s indiscretions – spitting on cars?! – Halley turns back to look at an unfazed Moonee, joyfully noting ‘I’ve failed as a mother Moonee!’ to which her daughter replies with the same light charm; ‘Yeah mom, you’re a disgrace’. Rarely is the trope of the ‘failed mother’ so casually and lightly handled, particularly by the subjects of these labels themselves: it is a commonly said, after all, that one of the worst things you can do is question another person’s parenting. But Moonee and her single mom Halley, we soon find, care little for the moralising straitjackets that prop up conventional social mores.
The mother-daughter duo is rebellious, loveable and carefree. The incensed owner of the spitball-drenched car, after being exposed to their charms, is quickly turned into a great friend. Free food – and don’t forget the maple syrup! – is readily provided by Ashley (Mela Murder), the adult from room 223 – and Scooty’s mum – who clandestinely passes Moonee food through the back door of the diner where she waits tables. There is no need for Moonee and pals to bring along coins to their local ice cream stand; all they need is to approach a kindly nearly adult and ask, “Do you have change please? The doctor says we have asthma and we gotta eat right away”. At home, cash-strapped Halley remains permanently unfazed by the various threats of eviction that might rattle anyone else; her perpetually late rent payments and the unrelenting hijinks of her daughter find a generous and patient audience in the kindly Bobby.
Sean Baker had hoped to make The Florida Project as the modern rejoinder to Hal Roach’s The Little Rascals, a series of early 20th century short films depicting the adventures of a dastardly group of ragtag young children. Roach’s Rascals broke ground for its unapologetically authentic portrayal of children and all their bare-naked Freudian ids run wild. Just under a century later, Baker’s Florida Project carries the spirit of these rascals to a tee. The film is largely shot through Moonee’s view, perfectly hitting the right notes of joy, exuberance, and the unchecked sense of invincibility that comes with being a child surrounded by such boundless love within the pastel-soaked beauty of Florida in the summer.
Halley, after all, is nothing but devoted and loving. More big sister than actual guardian, Halley takes Moonee and friends hitchhiking to the park near the city, where they eat cake and marvel at late-night fireworks. A trip to the dollar store turns into a two-women party all aboard a shopping cart. A ‘swimsuit selfie’ photography session is staged to great excitement. Moonee, I’m getting a phone call – how about you go take a nice long bath this evening to some fun loud music? Don’t go outside. When you’re in there, ignore any strange men who happen to walk into our bathroom; they’re just lost. Mommy has a new job – we can finally pay our rent on time!
The storytelling in The Florida Project is subtle, telling the adult viewer just enough while maintaining the unadulterated optimism that commonly filters a young child’s gaze on the world. And yet it is not a lens that condescends to the child; the film makes clear Moonee’s inordinate insight, and the audience is compelled to marvel at the boundlessness of her imagination and joie de vivre. While fairy tales are stories framed by adults for the purpose of educating children, often from the standpoint of sneering at naiveté from on high – don’t accept apples from strangers; be good, docile, and kind (especially if you’re a girl) – the tale of Moonee’s Magic Castle reverses the direction of the pedagogy. A sceptical adult might be quick to frame her motel as a gauche purple ‘problem estate’ mired in poverty, a place marked by endless visits from the police, local authorities and food banks. Moonee’s story refuses this script. There is beauty to be found in people and places that the world is too quick to otherwise cast as perverse – a project – a problem to be fixed.
The ‘original sin’ of childhood, however, is that it inevitably jettisons you into a world that you cannot control, in spite of your best efforts. The Florida Project, although not a tragedy per se, sees tragedy by way of how these two magically exuberant young women are nevertheless cast to live in a world that is too small for them. In our world today, only a certain caste of people get to be truly carefree without consequence; a working class teenage mother and her six-year-old are not in that exclusive clique. Baker is not naïve about the world in which his two characters live; a lesser director may take this as an invitation to engage in tragedy porn. Baker opts instead to serve the humanity of Moonee and Halley by celebrating how they build their own worlds and kingdoms on their own terms, while remaining candid about the ways in which their flights of fancy are tragically constrained by economic and social realities. And that makes The Florida Project both deeply human and sublime.
Rebecca Liu is a freelance writer living in London. She is an editor for Kings Review, and tweets at @becbecliuliu.