I don’t remember my childhood. I have overwritten it, systematically burying the memories underneath grammar rules, history lessons, and math formulas. Over the years, they must have been packed away and eventually, lost altogether. The last remnants of my childhood are stashed away in old photo albums, recorded on a few VHS tapes, and retold in my parent’s stories. All of this makes what The Florida Project accomplishes even more remarkable. The Florida Project is the latest offering from writer and director Sean Baker, whose filmography includes Tangerine, the movie best known for being shot only on iPhone 5s. It was a radical new approach that seemed to prove that modern technology could enable filmmakers to succeed outside of the Hollywood system. Although his new movie may have been created with more traditional tools, Baker has remained very much an outsider by continuing his focus on the lives that are sidelined by other films.
The Florida Project is unique in that it revolves entirely around the perspective of 6-year-old Moonee as she romps around the confines of the budget hotel that is her home and the surrounding community a little bit outside of Disney World. Through her eyes, the world becomes wondrous. The shabbiness and the rampant commercialization of the area falls away to reveal something magical that has nothing to do with Mickey Mouse or fried turkey legs. Everything around Moonee is huge and exaggerated in bright colors that one could almost believe that it is truly a land created entirely from imagination. There is a fantastic sequence that follows Moonee as she introduces her new friend Jancee to all of her favorite haunts. The children are dwarfed in every frame by larger than life buildings. One is a giant orange, another has a wizard’s head staring down from the roof, and then there is the ice cream shop, shaped, of course, like an ice cream cone. In an age of helicopter parenting, these kids are gloriously free from supervision and rules. They fill their mouths full of sweets and wander with an air of invulnerability. This is the essence of childhood, to be free of all the tiny little worries that nag at the mind of adults.
Yet, Baker never forgets the circumstances from which this freedom is borne. Moonee plays without restraint because her mother, Halley refuses to reign her in. Halley has not entirely grown up herself. She reacts to the world with the anger of a child that still expects to get whatever she wants. Halley’s immature impulsiveness often gets both her and Moonee into trouble. Yet, we understand her too. This world of orange and purple sunsets seems full of endless possibility and no consequences. We are lured into the same mindset as Moonee and Halley. Providing the voice of reason is Bobby, the manager of the hotel. Willem Dafoe portrays a man that is equally torn between the realities of the world and the dream that is all around him. He manages his little kingdom with efficiency and empathy that indicates a man that is capable of much more. Yet, he chooses to stay, even as he is belittled by his lodgers and the privileged tourists that look down upon him. He becomes a parent, creating a true haven for child-like dreams to survive a little bit longer. There is something noble in trying to preserve something that is already lost. No one can remain a child forever, but perhaps in the syrupy Floridian air, time can be slowed down. The Florida Project proves that the mindset of a child is always accessible even long after we have forgotten the specific memories.