The Florida Project

Baker, Sean

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Jiang, Joshua
  • Date of entry: Apr-30-2019


Free-spirited six-year-old Moonee and her young mother Halley live in a motel on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida. In contrast to the families vacationing at nearby Walt Disney World, Moonee occupies her summer days by helping her mother hawk bootlegged goods to unsuspecting tourists and making trouble with other motel-dwelling children. With a ragtag and often burnt-out cast of characters, The Florida Project portrays the challenges of American poverty, the frustrations of familial (ir)responsibility, and the limits of a child’s ability to make the best of broken circumstances.


Director Sean Baker is known for his willingness to depict unglamorous lives on the silver screen, and The Florida Project stays the course by telling the story of transient, poor folk in a modern America teeming with excess. There is complexity to the cast, like the motel manager played deftly by actor Willem Dafoe, that prevents the viewer from making cursory judgments of the characters without undercutting vital aspects of their being. Filmgoers should be ready to hold various virtues and vices in tension and recognize the dimensionality of even those we might find repugnant.

Moonee embodies the dichotomy that exists in many of the onscreen characters. Her childish wonderment is one of her strengths, enabling her to construct imaginative worlds from otherwise bleak realities. Other children may be enjoying the exotic animals found in Disney’s exquisitely curated parks, but Moonee and company experience their own safari by watching cows grazing on Floridian swampland. Their moments of unfettered joy showcase children’s ability to genuinely make the best of unfortunate conditions.

However, Moonee is not incorruptible or immune to the faults of her mother: she develops the same short temper and disdain for authority. Some of her actions are hardly excusable even for a child and serve as a stark reminder of her impressionability, and the paradoxes of childhood: Moonee maintains the innocence of playing made-up games with friends, but simultaneously exhibits an uncanny aptitude for lying and manipulation.

A few critics have lambasted the movie for what they feel is more than a missed opportunity: we are never given any indication of the inner life or motivations of Halley, the mother, other than her desire to pay rent, avoid punishment, and use Moonee for personal gain. This under-characterization is apparently the result of a director who envisions lives of societal others but unsatisfactorily so due to his inability to empathize completely with his subjects’ circumstances. While I concede that there probably are facets of poverty and parenthood that Baker has not known, Halley’s aimlessness may be an awakening for the audience. As an aside, the whole plot of the film—barring its final story arc—is notable for a general ennui, almost intentionally pulseless and waiting for something to happen, not unlike Halley herself.

The audience is awakened to the possibility that the examined life critics were hoping for is a privilege; some people may not have the time or mental capacity to concern themselves with much more than finding a way to make next week’s rent. By giving his audience a view of such an existence, Baker prompts us to reconsider the Socratic adage: is the unexamined life not worth living? Regardless of the philosophical answer to that question, the reality is that seemingly “unexamined” lives are being lived, and often as the result of poverty and social leprosy.

If there is a critique to be made, it should be that the personal nature of the film magnifies individual responsibility for poverty and mitigates the systemic and social processes that make scarcity possible in a land of plenty. The film lays the blame of poverty squarely on the irresponsibility of Halley—her inability to keep a job, her unwillingness to cooperate with welfare services. While we cannot totally absolve Halley of personal responsibility and flawed decision-making, it would also be naive and a disservice to forget the systemic issues that leave and keep people impoverished.

Viewers should be challenged to consider not only the reality of poverty in America, but also the potential for it to be more intense than what can be portrayed on screen. We should consider the effects of growing up destitute and the difficulty of breaking cycles of poverty on micro- and macroscopic levels. What might it take for us to know the inner life of someone whose circumstances are so unlike our own so as to be disorienting? What might it take to rekindle joie de vivrein those who have not tasted it for a long time?


Willem Dafoe nominated for Best Support Actor at the 90th Academy Awards





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