On Sean Baker's story about poverty and protection.
When I was a little guy, my favorite food was angel hair pasta with some butter and parmesan cheese. That was it. That was my favorite meal. Every year, on my birthday, my mom would ask me what I wanted to have for my Birthday Dinner™, and every year she was a litlte bit bemused as she accepted my enthusiastic request for a special celebration meal consisting of three (mostly) flavorless ingredients.
Even now, that simple bowl of pasta with butter and parmesan cheese is a comfort food. Twenty years later and I've learned to enjoy some more complex flavors (though I still have an embarrassingly simple palette), but when you throw those three dumb ingredients into a bowl it takes me back to one of the most elemental childhood truths: Wonder is relative.
This idea ultimately forms the beating heart of Sean Baker's The Florida Project. A slice-of-life style peek into the daily lives of families living in the extended-stay motels that line the streets just behind Walt Disney World, the film focuses on how wonderful the world can be when seen through a child's eyes. What's more is that it manages to do so without turning its head from some of life's more bracing truths. Baker's screenplay, written with Chris Bergoch, mostly just follows six-year-old Moonee around, literally, as she and her friends roam about the neighborhood, occasionally detouring to show how her mom Halley (a surprisingly impactful Bria Vinaite, given her lack of experience) struggles to keep the two of them afloat.
He and cinematographer Alexis Zabe bring Central Florida to life from a child's-eye view, letting camera placement and rich saturation create Moonee's drastically big and colorful environment. Moonee might not have the same access to the Magic Kingdom as the tourists who enjoy themselves in another world just outside of her own, but it doesn't matter. Moonee's world is absolutely full of wonder, and as The Florida Project unfolds, it becomes clear that a sort of communal protection is an instrumental part of its preservation.
Like Baker's previous film Tangerine, The Florida Project concerns itself with the everyday life in a narratively underserved part of society. Outsiders with different lives might come to Halley and Moonee's neck of the woods for vacation, but are visibly offended when they find themselves in the Magic Castle instead of the Magic Kingdom. The men and women living in that brightly-colored row of Kissimmee motels are doing the best to just get by; their children are doing their best to just keep being children. Neither group can exist without the support of the other, and this feeling of community is truly capped off by the presence of hotel manager—and combination den mother/father figure—Bobby, played by a deeply moving Willem Dafoe. From his willingness to bend the rules so Halley can have a relatively stable living situation to his fierce ejection of the playground creeper about midway through the film, Bobby dedicates himself to looking out for Halley, Moonee, and his other tenants, whatever that might mean.
Running through each of the lives depicted in The Florida Project is this communal sense of protection, a willingness to step in and make sure everything is alright when someone else can't do it for themselves. The children look out for each other as their parents look out for them, and Bobby in turn looks out for their parents so the whole thing can keep on spinning.
This cycle of security winds up being exactly what makes the film possible in the first place in that it gives Moonee the chance to just be a kid, her sense of wonder mostly untouched by some of her life's more upsetting truths. Bobby takes care of Halley so Moonee can take her friend on a cow safari and convince adults to buy her doctor-ordered ice cream. In the end, it makes possible the preservation of Moonee's sense of relative wonder: because of the support system surrounding her, Moonee's world is just as full of magic as the more expensive one just down the street from the Magic Castle.