NYFF 2017: ‘The Florida Project’ and the Power Of Childhood Ignorance

by Michael Haigis
Published: Last Updated on

Our own Christopher Cross championed The Florida Project here, praising revelatory performances, a setting accurately described as whimsical decay, and a quietly devastating third act — all worthwhile reasons to see Sean Baker’s new film, which harnesses the perspective of childhood in a way that is relatable and terrifying. The frank confrontation of childhood ignorance prompts an unease that I imagine is universal, but also feels devastatingly personal, even as the film’s specific milieu seems otherworldly: what if your childhood wasn’t what you remember? What if it was actually worse?

The Florida Project unfolds almost entirely through the eyes of children, whose insulation from the adult degradation surrounding them leaves the audience grasping for film’s narrative as it unfolds. We can only guess at what the adults are doing while the film tags along with kids joyously exploring, spitting on cars, playing tag, and vandalizing. Watching them normalize their plainly squalid environments, I couldn’t help uncomfortably recalling the various revelations that adults face as they age.

It’s a strange sensation, growing older and reassessing your childhood from a distance. Certain realizations are as simple as curious shifts of perspective — maybe your bedroom was much tinier than you remember, or your childhood home was kind of crummier than you imagine. Some are humorous new sympathies with the authorities imagined by children to be unimpeachable or alien — maybe your teacher was just hung over or exhausted when they rolled the video cart into the classroom, after all.

The Florida Project investigates a third, rueful category, illustrating adult flaws that escape the understanding of children with the help of a well-placed lie or a well-timed diversion. Some of us realize late in life that a kooky uncle was actually just a drunk, or that Dad didn’t sleep on the couch all those nights simply because it helped his back. The children in The Florida Project inhabit an adult world without structure, streaking through the background in a tragic adult drama, while instinctually constructing their own world of adventure and excitement.

Adult audiences will pick up the signifiers of tumult in The Florida Project even when they are pushed to the background by childhood hijinks. Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) live in a cramped, untidy motel room, where Halley is mostly characterized by youthful immaturity, unfortunate tattoos, and unfiltered vulgarity. The inherent danger of Moonee and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) venturing alone along Orlando highways burrows into the back of our heads, and creates a deafening concern: “Where are these kids’ parents?”

And yet, a universal facet of childhood is sheer stupidity that we inevitably later assess with incredulity as adults. However, The Florida Project remains committed to exploring its seedy world through the eyes of Moonee — often literally, as the camera glides with her and Scooty at shoulder level, appraising gaudy highway motels from below, framing them as magical instead of (more accurately) gross.

We experience Halley’s story alongside Moonee, which blunts the impact of her indiscretions. The status of a deteriorating friendship between Halley and her friend Ashley (Mela Murder) is gauged by Ashley’s willingness to feed Moonee for free at the diner where she waits tables. We witness heated arguments between Halley and the Motel Manager Bobby (Willem Defoe) from the perspective of Moonee, who sits on the bed hurling insults at Bobby over her mother’s shoulder.

And, in the film’s crushing third act, we slowly learn of Halley’s prostitution in a series of scenes that focus squarely on Moonee. When Halley suggests to her daughter that they have a playful bikini photo shoot, Moonee gamely agrees — just one more hilarious lark. But when Halley, posing seductively, asks Moonee to take her picture, the seemingly harmless scene is perverted by Halley’s dark intentions bubbling to the surface. Later, Halley’s prostitution begins in earnest, though we see only Moonee playing in the bathtub; Halley is notably absent, hidden from her daughter (and us) by a closed bathroom door and music loud enough to muffle anything in earshot.

Bobby’s is the only other viewpoint consistently employed in The Florida Project, and as a rare stable adult in the film, glimpses of his psyche apply context to our understanding of Moonee’s world. He is patient with the hell-raising children at the motel, and his exasperation is coupled with a gentle resignation, an acceptance of the role of de facto guardian for the kids in lieu of their negligent parents. When a middle-aged creep wanders off the highway and talks to Moonee and her friends, Bobby is left to realize what is happening and removes the man from the property. When Child Services come to investigate Halley, Bobby hurries Moonee from scene, understanding the situation’s potentially traumatizing affect on the child.

The kids, of course, don’t recognize their brush with a potential predator, just as Moonee is incapable of grasping the idea that her upbringing could generally be considered tragic. From a different perspective, The Florida Project might be thoroughly harrowing. Through the eyes of Moonee and her friends though, that story is simply there, unfolding in the background as they concoct their own fantasy.

Baker ultimately frames childhood ignorance as both blessing and curse. Moonee’s innocent outlook protects her from processing the sad context of her life, and yet when Child Services do eventually come, she is unequipped to understand why she is being taken from her own mother. Lacking the ability to process her own neglect, the act simply reads as the loss of her Mom, of Scooty, of her world.

The final scene in The Florida Project was the only bit of the film I didn’t originally love. After Moonee runs from Child Services to her friend’s room, the two lock hands and take off down the highway, speeding into Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I was jarred by the entire escapade, which appears to have been shot on a go-pro. It’s jerky and completely discordant with the striking cinematography of the rest of The Florida Project, yet I’ve come to understand the sequence as a thoughtful coda instead of a narrative conclusion. Overwhelmed by the arrival of Child Services, Moonee burrows further into adventure and unrestricted movement. Her flight into Disney World won’t protect her from reality, but the time may successfully paperboard over the trauma at the motel in her memory.

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