The Florida Project is one of the best films of the last decade and one of my favourite films of all time. It’s also a movie whose name makes me wince when I hear almost anyone else mention it, because so many people – even people who like it – end up saying truly horrible things about its lead characters, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley is the young mother of Moonee, and they’re part of the invisible homeless, living out of a single room in a motel called the Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida, near Disney World. The two main strands of the film are Moonee’s adventures with her friends Scooty, Dicky and Jancey, inspired by the Our Gang short films popular in Depression-era America, and Halley’s struggles to keep them off the street. There’s no real narrative throughline for Moonee, but Halley’s story is one of steadily escalating peril as the exploitation and indifference of others – and some bad decisions of her own – make it harder and harder for her to get by. She loses her job at a strip club because she refuses to have sex with a client. She loses her benefits because she loses her job (the circumstances were not considered extenuating). Unable to find work elsewhere, she starts selling stolen perfume to tourists and babysits Scooty in exchange for his mother, Ashley, giving her and Moonee stolen food from the diner where she works. When they fall out and Ashley cuts ties with her, Halley ends up, ironically, doing the exact sex work she lost her job over to pay rent. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about how poor people are punished for being poor (along with Wendy and Lucy) and it moved me more deeply than I can ever express.
I’ve been aware some people hate these characters since I saw The Florida Project in the cinema. I was homeless at the time, all alone in the smallest screen until five minutes through the ads, when a large contingent of very posh-looking older people joined me. When we reached the climactic scene, where Moonee finds out she’s going to be taken from Halley by child services and runs away so she can say goodbye to her friends, I was sobbing very hard. There’s a particular moment where the realisation sets in for Moonee. She’s trying to tell her friend Jancey that they’ll probably never see each other again and Jancey asks why. Moonee bursts into tears and starts wailing in pain and fear and sorrow because she can’t bring herself to say what’s happened. For reasons I will wonder about until the day I die, the rest of the people in my screening laughed. I was prepared to write it off as one of weird group of people with empathy problems, but then I sat through this horrible review of the film where Ben Mankiewicz calls Halley “the worst mother in the history of movies” and talks about how he spent most of the film wanting Moonee to be taken from her, and a dozen like it besides.
I don’t go in for casting aspersions on the morality or motives of people based on how they react to a work of art, but, I’m not gonna lie, it was very hard not to do it with a lot of people’s responses to The Florida Project. People would say Halley is an unfit mother and that, even if it was sad, Moonee would be better off in foster care and it just baffled me. Halley is kind of obnoxious, sure, and not all her choices are the best choices. She perhaps doesn’t monitor the children enough sometimes and she assaults Ashley in front of Scooty when Ashley criticises her for doing sex work. But, despite the poverty they live in, Halley keeps Moonee fed and sheltered and happy and safe. They live in awful conditions, but Moonee is happy, she’s a sweet, joyful, adventurous child whose mother lets her live in blissful ignorance of the world’s shittiness. No, she doesn’t have great prospects in life, but that’s because she’s a homeless child, not because Halley is “the worst mother in the history of movies”. And the idea that she’ll definitely, or even probably, be better off in foster care is absurd if you know even a little bit about it. It’s not just the horror stories – though God knows there are plenty of them – it’s the simple fact that, in most circumstances, separating a child from their parents is a harm in itself.
But that’s not what baffled me. I know people look down on homeless people, single mothers and sex workers. I know that poor people are villainised for doing things our society ignores or even lauds when rich people do them: one of the foundational principles of neoliberalism is that it’s bad for poor people to passively receive income for unemployment, but extremely good for the rich to passively receive income for already being rich. I know people think of child separation as a miracle solution to poverty, neglect and abuse. What baffled me is there’s a character in the film with these kinds of attitudes and he’s not the hero of the story.
Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe) is the manager of the Magic Castle. He’s a fundamentally decent guy who just wants to do his job without a lot of hassle and does his best to look out for the residents of the motel. He’s also the person who calls child services on Halley, and even gives them security footage of clients entering her room. We don’t learn a lot about Bobby’s personal life over the course of the film, though we do see him try futilely to connect with his estranged adult son, played by Caleb Landry Jones. Sometimes he seems like a father figure to both Moonee and Halley, who themselves sometimes seem more like sisters than parent and child. Halley is obviously very young and presumably had Moonee as a teenager. We don’t get much of their backstory either, though we get a sense that Halley was either kicked out by her family or cut ties with them. She and Moonee have each other, their friends and Bobby.
That limited sense of time is core to the story that The Florida Project wants to tell and how it wants to tell it. It doesn’t want to create sympathy for any of the characters with a tragic backstory, it just wants you to care for the characters as you might find them in real life, living in a particular moment. Much of the cast is comprised of the real residents of the actual motel where it was filmed, so they actually are living in that particular moment. You’re trapped in this discrete period of time with these characters, forced to passively observe not just their actions, but the context and conditions they live in. Bobby is a fundamentally decent guy who just wants to do his job, but his job consists in part in maintaining those conditions. You’re watching a movie about homelessness in America and one of the main characters helps keep the others homeless.
Part of Bobby’s job is to prevent the residents from establishing legal residency, which would give them certain legal protections, including from summary eviction due to late rent. Every twenty-nine days, Halley and Moonee are sent to another motel for one night to stop them becoming tenants rather than guests. When they arrive there about halfway through the film, the manager tells them the motel is under new ownership and their deal with the Magic Castle – whereby they give each other’s residents a discount on their one night per month – will no longer be honoured. Halley rings Bobby to sort it out and he eventually puts up the ten dollars she’s short for the room so they won’t have to sleep on the street, but the new owner refuses to serve them because Halley and Moonee are white trash. (“Listen to you and your child. No wonder you’re in this situation.”) They’re forced to sleep on the couch of Jancey’s grandmother in yet another motel. It’s kind of Bobby to make up the difference, but it’s hard not to think that it’d be much kinder if he just let them stay one more day. If he just all the residents stay one more day.
My point is obviously not to criticise Bobby as if he were a real person, or to treat him like a villain. He’s obviously not the bad guy. He’s fiercely protective of the kids and beats up a pedophile who doesn’t take his very kind offer to leave the property unharmed. But he’s not the hero either. He never risks his own comfort to help Halley and Moonee. The furthest he sticks his neck out for them is when he gives Halley the ten dollars for the other motel and, I mean, it’s ten dollars. Bobby is a man who really cares about being a good person and making moral decisions, but he lives in an immoral world, and he’s focused entirely on his own actions as an individual rather than the system he operates in, the system he literally helps to manage. He finds out a poor single mother is doing sex work to pay rent and feed her child and he threatens to report her to child services if she doesn’t stop.
Bobby isn’t the bad guy, but it’s crazy to me that anyone can watch The Florida Project and not take Halley’s side here. I understand the position Bobby is in, because it’s the position of the average person in a fundamentally immoral society: surrounded by suffering and unable to do anything as an individual to end it. It’s painful to walk down the street and see homeless people begging for money if you have any conscience at all. You want to just empty your wallet into every single fucking cup, but you only have one wallet, and it often doesn’t have much in it. It makes you feel powerless and, worse still, it makes you feel like a phony. You don’t feel like a good person when you recognise that something is wrong and do nothing to stop it, even if you can’t. It’s a feeling any basically decent person lives with all the time, and it sucks. I understand why Bobby reports Halley, even if I think it was the wrong thing to do. The feeling of being a bystander to injustice is horrible and it’s easy to convince yourself that you have to do something, even if it’s not the best thing. Even if it makes a little girl run away and cry. Sometimes, you really think you’re helping. Sometimes, you know deep down you’re just trying to relieve your own angst.
But again, my point is not to criticise Bobby. The more time goes by, the more I see that a lot of people reacted to The Florida Project so troublingly because they’re just thinking about the characters and their actions. It’s a vulgar kind of moral and political criticism that just tallies Halley’s actions versus Bobby’s or whoever else and says, well, you might not like it, it might be sad, but look, Halley is rude and a thief and assaults Ashley and steals from a client who comes back to the motel to threaten her. Bobby is nice and respectful to everyone, he’s so patient with Halley and Moonee and the only person he assaults is a literal pedophile. She’s “the worst mother in the history of movies” and Bobby is a fundamentally decent guy who just wants to do his job.
But the film doesn’t just want you to think about the characters, it wants you to think about the context.
One of the pivotal scenes in the film sees Moonee and her friends, Jancey and Scooty, exploring an abandoned housing development. It’s not clear whether the homes were foreclosed upon or never finished, but they’re clearly a casualty of the 2008 financial crash, painted in bright pastels on the outside and full of white debris inside. (“Ghost poo”, according to Moonee.) After throwing rocks through a couple of windows, they wander into one of the houses, which Scooty claims was “built hundreds of years ago”. Moonee walks through the house and tells Jancey how she’d decorate each room. (One is just for dancing.) Scooty starts to smash up the house – hammering a wall with a pipe, dropping a toilet from a balcony, pushing a dresser down the stairs – until Moonee finds the fireplace and calls him down so they can use his lighter to set a pillow on fire. “This is going to be the best fire ever,” says Moonee. “Light it up, Scooty!”
Smash cut to the kids running up the street. Scooty says they’re going to be “in so much trouble”, but Moonee says it’ll be fine if they don’t tell anyone. Just as she and Scooty arrive at the motel, Bobby exits the office and we see the huge tower of smoke on the horizon. It’s hilarious, and it’s not. There is an obvious tension between the two strands of the film – Moonee’s adventures and Halley’s fight to make their life not just liveable, but enjoyable – that erupts in scenes like this. The light-hearted fun and innocence of Moonee and her friends grinds against the social realism of the rest of the film, but it’s not incoherent or a tone problem. It’s a dramatisation of the real tension between the desire to live a happy life in this world and the reality that most people who’ve ever lived – and most living now – are in a constant struggle with a heartless society that doesn’t care to make that happiness possible. This incident is probably the clearest case where Halley’s failure to supervise the kids put them in danger, though people tend to focus on the fact she has sex with a client while Moonee is in the bathroom, as if that’s (1) dangerous on its face or (2) something Halley was really in a position to avoid.
If you analyse the film purely through its characters, I can see why you might react as Ashley does when she finds out about the fire from Scooty and write Halley off completely. But the context of the scene matters. It matters that the homeless kids play in an abandoned housing development. They are homeless for the same reason the housing development is abandoned: because housing is a commodity in our society, something that exists for profit, not to give shelter and safety to human beings. It matters that they ended up at the housing development because they were told to stop playing around the motel, because their hijinks put off the tourists, much like the food van giving out sandwiches to the impoverished residents, which Bobby, on his boss’s orders, asks to move around the back. Out of sight, out of mind. And it definitely matters that the kids could get into the house because it was completely unsecured – either by its owner or by the government – and just left in a field for Moonee, Scooty and Jancey to find. I try not to tell people they’re watching a film wrong, because there are many valid ways to watch almost any film, but if you can watch that scene – with Moonee telling Jancey where she’d put her bed and her bookshelf if she had a room of her own – and come out primarily aggrieved at the kids, or Halley, or even Bobby, you’re watching it wrong. You should come away from this movie angry at the world.
The Florida Project is a shamelessly activist film, even if it’s not as preachy or didactic as that label would imply. It trusts the audience – too much, perhaps – to come away unsettled and unsatisfied, without the comfort of catharsis or resolution. Bobby does what he thinks is the right thing within the limited scope of his ability to do good in the world, and it’s not inconceivable that, in the long run, he could turn out to be correct. But we don’t get the long run. We don’t even get the next day. Just as there are no backstories to make us sympathise, there is no epilogue to resolve the queasy anxiety that Bobby’s decision leaves us with. There’s not even a conclusion. Moonee and Jancey run off to Disney World in a closing scene shot guerilla-style on an iPhone. The footage is shaky and goes in and out of focus. There’s no sound but the score – the only non-diegetic music in the entire film – an orchestral arrangement of the song that opens the film, “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang. They arrive at the Magic Kingdom, the camera stops as the girls keep running, and it cuts to black. It feels like it’s from a different movie and it plays like a fantasy ending, either way suggesting the only way to “end” the story is with an “ending” that doesn’t seem true.
The Florida Project refuses to let you off the hook, but I guess it can’t stop you wriggling yourself free if you want.