An Ode To Innocence and Poverty

How The Florida Project reveals the complexities of poverty through children’s eyes.

Few films have stuck in my mind quite like The Florida Project. Yet, it didn’t contain any huge plot twists. It wasn’t a plot-infused action thriller with tons of brutal martial-arts or gunfights. What it was is honest. What is was is human. And, ultimately, that’s what makes it memorable.

The Florida follows Moonee, a young girl who lives with her mother in a rundown motel. She spends most of her days wandering the open fields and streets that surround the motel, often asking people for money, sometimes joining her mother in an illegal venture to sell stolen items for cash. Looming over them is Walt Disney World: a striking contrast to the poverty-stricken strip that Moonee and her friends inhabit. The film takes us on essentially two journeys that clash together in the end. They are, in essence, the same experience but viewed through two drastically different lenses.

And naturally, SPOILERS AHEAD.

On the one hand, you have Moonee’s mom, Hailey. She feels the brunt of the poverty she is engulfed in. While on the outside she looks lackadaisical and carefree, spending time smoking cigarettes in her room and listening to hip-hop with her friend in the pool, it’s clear she is struggling. As the film progresses, Hailee begins to descend into a life of crime: prostitution and larceny, namely. Her friendships deteriorate, her trust crumbles, and she is left searching for a home where she and Moonee can lay their head at night.

Moonee experiences her mother’s struggle, but in a very different way. During the day, she is off with her unlikely friends, getting in trouble and exploring the overgrown surroundings. Occasionally, her experience and her mother’s experiences collide, as we can see when in a number of stark scenes that take place in the motel bathroom. In one of them, she and Hailee dress up in bathing suits and take pictures of each other. In a couple of others, Moonee is taking a bath while loud hip-hop blares in the motel room. In a final scene, a man enters the bathroom, only to be scolded by Hailee, who then tells Moonee to close the bathroom curtain more.

The implication is clear, and it’s not the only moment of the adult experience cascading into the childhood one, ripping away the veneer of innocence that these children cling to, even at the closing moments of the film. But still, director Sean Baker manages to keep these two experiences largely separate. We never know whether Moonee understands the extent of her mother’s experience and crimes.

The one person who brings these two stories together is the motel manager, Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe. He drifts in and out of both stories, playing an odd father figure to Hailee while also yelling at and protecting the kids as they wreak havoc around the motel. It’s clear that he understands the issues Hailee is dealing with and he cannot tolerate them to any degree, but he also cares about her. He bends over backward to give her leeway, to give her some financial assistance, and to keep an eye on Moonee. It’s a career-defining role, one that is subtle and quiet, much like the film Dafoe is in.

And, ultimately, that’s the thing that sticks with me when I think about this film: how human it is. I know people like Hailee. I went to school with women like her. Baker’s film didn’t just strike me as authentic, but honest. He understands who these people are. He understands that while they want stability, they will never attain it. And, most importantly, he knows how horribly ironic it is for these families to live in a beat-up motel while the Happiest Place On Earth looms nearby: a constant reminder of a vacation they cannot take and a life they cannot have.

The Florida Project has no real plot and only a couple of climactic moments. For the most part, it’s a very quiet, contemplative film defined by diametrically opposed views: childlike wonder and worn-down adulthood, innocence and cynicism. But it doesn’t need a plot, nor does it need to be loud. These characters a heartbreakingly realistic. Maybe that’s why I can’t forget this film: because I see Moonee and Hailee every day on my commute to work, on my strolls through downtown, and when I ride past the local motel.

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Keith LaFountaine

Writer and filmmaker from Vermont. Sometimes, I dabble with politics.