The Florida Project

The Florida Project

The Florida Project takes place in or on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, close to Walt Disney World. Just as the movie’s location is on the periphery of Disney World, the action is as well. That is, a 95% similar movie could have been set in some city in Florida (or elsewhere) with no connection to Disney World, but there are occasional Disney elements here and there, such as business and street names (e.g., 7 Dwarfs Lane), a fireworks show at Disney World that the characters can see from their neighborhood, and a few interactions with people who are in town to go to Disney World.

The central characters are 30ish Halley and her 6 or 7 year old daughter Moonee. They live in one of those motels with weekly rates that poor people tend to end up in when they are doing well enough to avoid homelessness but not well enough to be able to scrape together enough money at one time to move into a real house or apartment (which in the long run would be far less expensive).

The motel is in an area of multiple such establishments. The movie is kind of about that whole community, as Halley and Moonee have friends and acquaintances in their motel and neighboring motels, and a key character in the movie is their motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe—who’s really good in this).

The Florida Project takes place during summer vacation. Moonee pretty much roams free during the days, typically with one or more little friends of about the same age.

Halley and Moonee survive financially (barely) off of a combination of private and governmental charity, panhandling, selling perfume on the street, petty theft, and borrowing from others in similar straits. Halley dabbles as a sex worker when she has to—dancing at clubs and furtively turning tricks in their motel room.

There’s not much of a conventional story to The Florida Project. It’s more the kind of movie that just lets you get to know certain people and gradually understand what their life is like.

That’s a type of movie that, when done well, can be admirable and give one much to think about, but I usually don’t experience such movies as all that enjoyable in an immediate way. A movie without a conventional plot to follow tends to feel overlong to me and takes a certain amount of self-discipline to stick with. I appreciate movies like that considerably more often than I like the actual experience of watching them.

I’d say The Florida Project is an exception, though. I was engaged in this film from start to finish. It’s almost two hours long, but to me it felt shorter than most movies I see. I would have been fine watching a longer version of this; I felt no sense of fatigue or flagging interest as it got closer to the end.

Furthermore, whereas for most of the movie my interest and my appreciation felt more intellectual, in the last few minutes of the film and then just sitting there watching the credits and letting the experience sink in, I felt unusually emotional.

It came over me unexpectedly. All of a sudden I was choked up. It’s like the movie had not felt that intense to me—though certainly I’d been into it and liked it—but somehow it had maybe had an emotional intensity for me just below the conscious level, and then the concluding scenes brought those emotions to the surface.

Certainly this movie makes you think about childhood and parenting, topics that have become of keen interest to me in the last decade or so especially.

I really think The Florida Project “gets it” when it comes to childhood. Moonee and the other kids in the movie feel totally real—the way they talk, the way they’re shaped by their environment and role models, what you can infer about their worldviews, etc.

There’s a lot of ugliness and misery and things to judge harshly or be saddened by in this movie. But at the same time it captures the beauty and joy of childhood in a way that I have rarely seen in movies.

Are Moonee and her peers having a bad, unhealthy childhood? In an obvious sense, certainly they are. They’re poor, and they’re growing up around filth and crime and all that.

But in other respects, arguably their childhood is not only not particularly bad, but is better than what most kids experience.

In child raising, there’s a tradeoff between affording a child the freedom to grow in her own way, to learn through experience and through making mistakes, versus controlling the input she receives so as to engineer the desired output.

The move in recent years and decades has been very much toward the latter and away from the former (at least amongst certain classes). Children are under constant surveillance; everything they do is structured and supervised by adults.

The norm when I was growing up—which doesn’t make it right, but I’m just noting the contrast—was for kids to go off and play on their own “and just be sure to come home when the street lights come on.”

We had Little League and gym class in school and such but those were the exceptions; 75%-80% of the times I played sports as a kid it was pick-up games with other kids, where we got together informally, picked teams, argued, modified the rules as we went along, and may or may not have played to the end of a game. Today I talk to kids and they have no concept of that. To them, sports is an organized soccer league with uniforms, adult coaches, set schedules, parents watching from the sidelines, etc.

Parents are bombarded with messages to buy this and enroll their child in that for the educational benefit. Every aspect of childhood is designed by lawyers and nervous nellies to maximize control and minimize risk.

“The world’s just too dangerous today,” parents say in justification for insisting on adult control of every aspect of their children’s lives. There are too many pedophiles, gangs, speeding cars, drug pushers, kidnappers, etc. out there to do otherwise.

I think a great deal is lost when you go so far in that direction. My strong belief in alternative schooling—especially Sudbury schools, which are so extreme as to be closer to unschooling—is a reflection of the fact that I have come to stand much closer to the other end of the scale.

Watching this film, and observing specifically the lives these children have, brought all these issues to the surface for me. These kids are given so much freedom to make their own way in the world that the overwhelming majority of people today would surely be appalled by it—“That’s not ‘freedom’; it’s ‘neglect’”!

A part of me agrees. It’s not an insane criticism; safety and such deserve to be significant considerations in deciding how to raise children and how much freedom to allow them. Many people will understandably see The Florida Project as, if anything, illustrating precisely why not to leave children to their own devices. These little kids “run wild,” spit at parked cars and people from balconies, scream, play with lighters, interact with potentially dangerous adult strangers, play in abandoned buildings, etc. They’re undisciplined, and they put themselves in risky situations because they don’t know any better.

But a bigger part of me still sees something very appealing and very healthy about the lives these children lead. It’s not about denying the bad, but about recognizing the good that I think most people nowadays can no longer recognize.

These are kids who love to run, jump around, make noise, verbalize whatever pops into their head, laugh, engage in play of their own devising that would strike adults as hopelessly pointless and boringly repetitive, and observe with curiosity anything and everything in their world (especially if it’s something taboo that they’re not supposed to be exposed to). These are kids who make their own adventures, kids for whom every day is an adventure. Wandering for ten minutes or whatever into the countryside beyond the motels because there are cattle there that you can show your new friend is a special day unlike any other: a “safari.” And because it was a spontaneous thing you thought up and did on your own, it’s far superior—I would say—to taking a bus with a group of kids out to an organized “farm day” where adults will walk you around and show you all the animals and such.

Not to mention, these children are actually outdoors most of the day doing stuff. They don’t have their faces buried in their phones or TV every waking moment of the day, like most kids (and too many adults) do today.

These are kids being kids. Of course some of the behavior they’re allowed is inappropriate (in terms of safety, in terms of how it impacts the lives of others) and these kids would be pretty obnoxious and annoying adults if they never matured beyond where they are now. But there’s something—a lot, in fact—to be said for letting kids figure out the downside for themselves and grow out of it in their own way over time, rather than constantly imposing changes upon them.

So, yeah, the childhood depicted in this movie is vastly different from the childhood that middle class and above families have nowadays almost unanimously chosen for their kids. But is it better or worse? Well, it’s worse in plenty of obvious ways that most conventional folks would immediately pick up on, but damn it, it’s better too.

Watching The Florida Project made me think about how everything is new to kids, and how they have only a very limited capacity to compare their life with alternatives, since they have little knowledge of alternatives. To most kids, especially younger kids, their life is simply “life.”

As adults, we can watch the kids giving a newcomer playmate a makeshift tour of their motel—pointing out the room with the people who get arrested all the time, the elevator that “nobody uses because it smells like pee,” etc. and feel sadness that kids have to live that way, but I don’t think they experience it much differently from if they were walking through their neighborhood pointing out the house where the doctor lives, the house that goes all out at Halloween every year, etc.

For the most part, little kids don’t know how good the good is, or how bad the bad is, of their childhood.

Obviously related to how good or bad a childhood Moonee and her cohorts are having is the question of how good or bad the parenting of Halley and the other adults in the film is.

Well, needless to say, Halley is an atrocious parent in obvious ways. Even if you say that some of that is circumstantial, that as a poor person in that kind of environment, even the best parent, especially a single parent, is limited in how healthy a childhood she can provide for her kid, you’d then have to acknowledge that some—maybe a tiny bit, maybe almost all, maybe somewhere in between—of their being in those circumstances is surely a result of her own past and present choices.

I mean, come on, she doesn’t discipline her kid even to the limited extent I with my philosophy would, she involves her in her own unsavory practices to get money, she smokes and curses around her, she has a bad temper, she seemingly has no books or anything similarly conventionally enriching in their living space, she serves as no sort of positive role model when it comes to things like holding down a job or having healthy adult relationships, and it even reaches the point where she turns tricks while Moonee is a few feet away in the bathroom. The woman is a white trash mess.

Then again, there are things to like about her parenting, in addition to the fact that she allows so much freedom to her child to live her own life, grow in her own way, and be her own person.

What I find most appealing about her parenting are the intangibles, the unmistakable impression that she doesn’t just love Moonee in the obligatory way every parent always loves, or says they love, their kid, but genuinely likes her. It never feels like the reason Moonee is off with her friends as much as she is is because Halley doesn’t want her around, doesn’t want her to be in the way or a burden while she’s living her own life. She thoroughly enjoys Moonee and loves to share life with her.

What’s beautiful is how unpatronizing it is. Most adults, when they treat children well, when they interact with them in a positive manner, do so in a way that maintains the gulf between them. They put on a certain face, adopt a certain tone of voice, etc. as a role they think is appropriate with kids. Halley is one of those rare adults who comfortably operates on the level of her child, treating her largely as an equal.

Of course you could say that in part at least that’s because she herself is little more than a child in terms of her maturity level, impulse control, ability to plan for the future, etc. No wonder she doesn’t seem bored or out of touch with a 6 year old.

The good and the bad of Halley’s parenting come out most clearly in a scene where she goes on a shopping spree with Moonee after stealing a few hundred dollars. The obvious bad is that she’s a thief, and that whatever money she gets, whether through honest or criminal means, she spends immediately on today’s most pressing needs or impulsive wants without any effort to budget, prioritize, plan ahead, etc. The good is the sheer, unfeigned delight she has spinning Moonee around in a shopping cart while they buy candy and toys and trinkets.

She’s impulsive to an irresponsible degree, but as strong as any of those impulses is a desire that her child experience joy right now.

In my mind, I just keep coming back to what this movie tells us about childhood. Probably almost everyone would say this is a terrible life for a child, and would openly root for Moonee to be “rescued” by DCF (what the characters call the Florida Department of Children and Families). Maybe so. Like I say, I don’t fully disagree with that standpoint. Maybe Moonee will look back on all this one day and wonder how she survived such a nightmare of a childhood. Or worse yet, maybe she’ll be too fucked up as an adult to recognize how fucked up her childhood was.

Or maybe she’ll look back on these years of freedom, of bonding with friends as they make up their own ways of playing, of having adventures, of getting into trouble, of laughing and dancing and carrying on with a mom who absolutely adores her, as the best time of her life and will consider anything that brought an end to it, any “rescue,” as the greatest trauma of her life.

A few other notes, a few other things that stood out to me about The Florida Project, though really they’re all related to what I’ve already written about.

I really like the Willem Dafoe character Bobby in this movie. As the motel manager he’s dealing with a lot of damaged, dishonest, and desperate people, so he has to be tough and always on his guard or he’ll be eaten alive. Yet at the same time, he’s a very caring person who takes a kind of paternalistic interest in the longtime residents, especially the children.

He’s not a saint and he’s not a superhero. He’s aware that there’s a limit to how much good he can do for these people, and at times they frustrate and anger him enough that maybe he’s not even sure he wants to do them good. No doubt he’s sometimes too harsh and sometimes too lenient with them, but typically he is at least close to the ideal balance. He has a good heart. He’ll give them a break here and there, do them a favor, bend the rules, etc. but his position also puts him in an antagonistic relationship with them at times. He has a “long suffering” quality to him; he’s a decent man trying to treat people decently in an environment that’s not always conducive to that.

He’s especially caring toward the kids, even as he scolds them or tells them to scram, and they know it, even as they mouth off to him. He’s always got an eye open to look out for them, as best epitomized by the scene in which he drives a probable pedophile (odd old man, clearly with significant mental or emotional disabilities) from the premises, but always with an awareness that there’s a limit to just how much he can protect them.

One of Halley’s flaws is an inability to respond appropriately to people who could be positive figures in her life. With Bobby, she impulsively jokes around and is friendly toward him when he’s doing something she perceives favorably, and impulsively loses her temper and abuses him when he is—however justifiably—enforcing a rule or acting antagonistically toward her. There’s seemingly no appreciation of the fact that on a deeper level he’s on her side and is looking out for her and her child as best he can.

I wrote above about how child raising is a matter of finding the right balance between allowing kids the freedom to be themselves and to learn and grow in their own way, versus keeping them safe and actively intervening in their lives to influence them in a positive direction, and that while I tend to think the ideal is much closer to the former end of the scale, present practices are much closer to the latter end.

Bobby, though he doesn’t have kids himself, may be reasonably close to where I am on that scale. He’s not as completely hands-off or as childlike and irresponsible himself as Halley, but I think he mostly likes kids to be free to be kids, even if he’s careful about how much he shows that. He raises no objection to the general phenomenon of the kids from the motels running off and playing in their own way each day, yet he’s more the type to put some minimal, reasonable limits on it when they really are putting themselves at significant risk or are causing significant trouble for others.

He likes the kids and doesn’t want to obsessively control their lives, or to see their parents obsessively control their lives, but he’s able to say no to them, to insist on the rules that actually matter.

One of the least appealing things about Moonee and her friends is how disrespectful they are, which isn’t surprising since Halley doesn’t teach respect for others. They’re 6 or 7 or whatever, and there’s no malice to it, so it doesn’t bother me in a big way, but their insults and mouthiness is an unfortunate byproduct of the freedom they’re allowed.

But you sense that the bigger a role Bobby had in their lives the more he would influence them in a better direction. He is kind to them and indulges them up to a point, but still expects a level of respect from them just as he treats them with respect. They mostly don’t in fact reciprocate that respect, but unlike Halley he acts for the long term, and I suspect having an adult like him in their lives would make them more likely to move in that respectful direction than they otherwise would be.

I think he’s also a good influence just by being a good role model, something that, again, Halley mostly isn’t. He’s a hard working guy, holds down a job, fulfills his responsibilities, acts in a caring way toward others, etc. The people, the kids, who pass through his life at the motel are there for only days, weeks, or months, so it’s not like his example is likely to have some dramatic effect on them and their development, but it may well have a modest, and beneficial, influence on some of them.

Another thing I found interesting about The Florida Project is its depiction of community. These are largely poor people, criminals, dysfunctional types, etc., but many of them at least seem to have an instinctive awareness that the challenges they face will be a bit less overwhelming if they look out for each other and help each other where they can.

There’s a striking scene early in the movie when the parents of one of Moonee’s friends pack up their car to head off to wherever their next hoped for opportunity is (I believe they mention New Orleans), and the family says their goodbyes to the other assembled motel residents. There are many hugs and it is apparent that these very temporary relationships have generated more emotion and closer bonds than you would expect. The father passes out to the children old toys and other items that he says won’t fit in the car (remember, their car is their only home and only place for their stuff when they are between motels), but you sense that he’s doing so as much as a way of delaying their parting and providing a final kind gesture as for the cited reason.

The camaraderie, the sense of community, is there for sure, but to be realistic of course it’s limited. These are for the most part highly damaged people after all.

Some of the limitations of how much they can really connect and support each other stem from the fact that they are not all at the same level of dysfunction or hopelessness. And they don’t all have the same desire or capacity to participate in a community with their fellow motel dwellers.

Halley has a friend one floor down, named Ashley. Ashley’s son is one of Moonee’s most frequent playmates. For much of the movie it appears that Halley and Ashley are living pretty similar lives and are quite compatible and quite happy in their friendship.

However, it becomes apparent as the movie develops that really they aren’t at the same place in life, aren’t equally dysfunctional.

Ashley works at a conventional job. Though it’s not addressed explicitly, she appears to be capable of budgeting and saving in a way that Halley—who is forever trying to scrape together the rent for her room at the last minute, or truth be told typically somewhat after the last minute—is not. Her style of parenting isn’t drastically different from Halley’s—her son is left free to roam the area like Moonee most days—but she is just a little more on top of what’s going on in her son’s life, a little more apt to intervene responsibly.

Halley is probably stuck at her current level. If anything, she’s more likely to spiral downward (into homelessness?, into prison?, into having her child taken away by the state?) than to work her way out of her current travails, whereas Ashley has the determination and the inner resources to realistically make this motel life a temporary sojourn for her and her family. Ultimately that difference leads to a violent end to the friendship.

So these folks in the motels kind of look out for each other and face their struggles as a community, but they are far from all one happy family.

Finally, one of the most memorable lines of the movie is spoken by Moonee: “I always know when an adult is going to cry.”

It’s not an innate ability I’m sure, but one learned from experience. The Florida Project depicts a type of childhood that has as at least as much joy, beauty, and love as—and indeed more precious freedom than—the very, very, very different type of childhood that is now the norm for people raised in middle class or above households. At the same time, it’s a type of childhood that affords a 6 year old the kind of life experience to be able to “always know when an adult is going to cry.”

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