There’s an inconsequential yet heartbreaking scene about halfway into “The Florida Project”. In an Orlando motel that is full of struggling families living paycheck to paycheck, it is time for one of the families, a Dad and his young son, to leave. All of their belongings just about fit into their car, a beaten Honda Civic. The son brings along one of their last pieces of luggage, a box of toys. When the box does not fit in the car, his dad, proceeds to give the toys away to the kids in the neighborhood. He apologizes to his son, promising to buy new toys once they reach their destination.
I remember being a kid and being heartbroken every time I lost a toy or had one broken, let alone having to give one up for trivial reasons. As a kid, your toys become your gateways to an imagined universe. And it is not just toys that define one’s childhood. Your friends become your companions on journeys into this imagined universe. Your family becomes your universe, the essence and ethos of it.
The logical mind might think that childhood is all fun and frolic, with only a little trouble thrown in. Yet, childhood has a lot more to it - there are the real and imagined universes, populated by toys, friends, and family. Within these, there is innocence and its constant struggle to ward off prejudice. There is purity in emotion. There is mischief masquerading as your ultimate friend, and sweetness seeking to be your purpose. There is also the subtle embodiment of nascent fibers that may then get thrown out or nurtured later on in life. In many ways, childhood is a strange, marvelous, and crucial time.
“The Florida Project” is a curious and patient ode to this, a film that surrounds innocence, joy, mischief, and heartbreak that we experience as kids; and how that defines our connections to the adults around us.
The movie is about Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a kid living in the aforementioned motel with her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite). But this is no “Boyhood”. Director Sean Baker, who also made the dazzling “Tangerine”, takes us through a charged commentary on the distorted economics, politics, and culture of our times. The movie uses brutal juxtapositions to establish this. Choppers carrying Orlando tourists on aerial tours that take off and land right outside Moonee’s motel. In one darkly hilarious scene, a honeymooning couple from abroad arrive at the motel because they made reservations at “The Magic Castle” sight unseen, expecting it to be a Disney resort.
The film doesn’t shy away from showing the fallout of these ironies - Halley doesn’t have a job. She is reckless, making ends meet by doing the odd jobs that are nefarious at best, quite probably all illegal. Her parenting is far from adequate, bordering on toxicity which unfolds into Moonee’s rowdiness. Anchored by enterprising performances by Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, and Willem Dafoe as the motel’s humane manager, the film is an unapologetic and stripped-bare look at the effect circumstances have on children.
Despite these tragic acknowledgements, the film doesn’t let go of its optimism - Halley and Moonee foster endearment from us. Moonee might have a scathing vocabulary, but she is harmless, sweet, and unknowing, like kids her age. On her part, Halley does whatever little she can to make Moonee’s day - like hitchhiking to take her to see fireworks. The film shines through moments of compassion, love, and friendship, displayed through simple gestures that invoke big pleasures.
Much like it’s unabashed climax, what the film tries to signify is innocence. Perhaps, purity is the right word. Or being unadulterated. Because no matter how one’s childhood has been, growing up, we lose some of its innate niceties. We lose a beautiful part of ourselves. This movie wants to rekindle that part, and wants us to retain, maybe even revive it. It wants us to be the best versions of ourselves.
“The Florida Project” is now streaming on Netflix.