• Teresa Xie


I watched The Florida Project with two friends in a small college theatre (UChicago's Ida Noyes) shortly after the film came out in 2017. I distinctly remember all three of us leaving the theatre unknowing of how to process the colorfully dark world we had spent the last two hours engulfed in.

I am not a fan of gummy-like Hollywood films; my preferred style of film plays more like a reel of intertwined stories rather than a saturated, set-driven lineup of shots. The Florida Project, with its mixed cast of experienced and first-time actors and its shooting location at the Magic Castle Inn & Suites in Osceola County, Florida, perfectly achieves the latter. For The Florida Project's story to work, setting up the film's casual and realistic tone is absolutely crucial.

Directed by Sean Baker (who you should also follow on letterboxd), The Florida Project revolves around Halley (Bria Vinaite), a single mom in her 20's with an energy that matches her blue-haired, tattooed look, and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), her six year-old daughter. The two live in Magic Castle, a motel right next to Disney World; it’s as close as one can get to the peppy amusement park with their kind of budget. Bobby (William Dafoe) is the manager of Magic Castle, and he splits his time fixing up the motel, weeding off wandering pedophiles from the property, and making sure his tenants and their kids don’t get into any trouble.

Halley struggles to make ends meet, after she loses her job as a dancer at a gentleman's club as well as her TANF benefits, forcing her to resort to desperate and sometimes illegal measures to provide for her and her daughter. Moonee and her best friend Scooty’s worlds look very different, but carry the same introspective awareness that we often forget children have. Although they are not at Disney World and are very much conscious of this fact, they manage to create enough mischievous and imaginary fun to almost make Magic Castle a park of its own.

One of the most admirable qualities of The Florida Project lies in Baker’s ability to stray the film far away from any and all cliches. This, in itself, is ironic, as Disney World is almost as blatant of a cliche you can get, except for the fact that Magic Castle and its inhabitants reside close enough to the dream to see it, but not touch it. Baker uses a mix of episodic and repetitive shots to make these characters completely three-dimensional. Halley’s daily hustle and Bobby’s constant influx of responsibilities are intentional in building lives that are not meant to be romanticized. Moonee and Scooters’ rose-tinted subterranean world is almost an enchanting enough glaze to cover the film’s dark realities. This contrast makes The Florida Project feel like you’re constantly transitioning between being in and waking up from a good dream.

The film closely aligns the viewer with all its protagonists, grounding them in empathy despite their obvious faults. Even when Halley resorts to prostituting herself, locking poor Moonee in a thin-walled bathroom with loud music as she has clients over, all we want is for Halley and Moonee’s situation to improve. Moonee’s pure innocence can only go so far, and the film often teeters between her limits.

The Florida Project is more than just an impressionable film; it is a niche, fully rounded story with characters that exist perfectly within their own elements. When looking back at this film that I watched three years ago, I see flashes of odd specificity: bright pink and yellow, William DeFoe’s parking lot encounters, Moonee’s spitting and swearing, and of course, the film’s ambivalently conclusive ending. The lack of finality of the film, although devastating, leaves the viewer foolishly hoping that a utopia still might exist offscreen for its characters, even after all these years.

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