The Florida Project: Don’t Let Moonee’s Fortress Deceive You

This essay is by our guest writer, Nina Liang.

As a dweller of this hellhole state, I can assure you that The Florida Project is the only saving grace to come out of Florida since Publix’s BOGO deals. This film truly sets you up for a party-of-one crying fest and leaves you feeling so frustrated, heartbroken, and helpless. At least for me, those were the three most profound emotions I felt during the movie, which is one of the reasons why this film stood out to me. As filmmakers and storytellers like to say, there’s always a truth in every story; however, in a much deeper sense, The Florida Project is more real than you could say about most films because of the subject the film tackles. Many of us can’t say we know what it’s like to really empathize with Moonee’s childhood and yet, somehow it feels as if we’ve lived through it; the struggles of  poverty, an unstable home life, young motherhood – themes that are strongly prevalent in today’s society.

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project (2017) © A24

Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), a precocious six-year-old, is a court jester disguised as the princess of the Magic Castle Motel. During her summer break, she and her little groupie go out of their way to cause mayhem for the residents and even manage to light an entire house on fire. However, while Moonee and her friends are off on their crazy adventures, the adults are left to pick up the pieces. At first glance, Moonee seems to only be a force of destruction but we soon realize that she’s learned to mirror this behavior from her young troubled mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Bobby (Willem Dafoe) the overseer and protector of his royal pink castle acts as a faux guardian to Moonee. He tries to keep everyone in check, but more importantly plays the main father figure role not only to Moonee but to Halley as well. While Moonee seems to be oblivious of the hardships around her, we see the adults dealing with unstable finances, implied drug use, and prostitution.

This film rips open Moonee’s constructed fantasy by taking a deeper look into her home environment. This movie brings us through the struggles the adults have to face, their situation serving as a foil to the children’s innocence. Baker reinforces the concept of false fantasies within a gritty reality by curating incredibly vibrant colors into his shots and camera POV.  Baker himself said that there were no high POV shots to make the kids look small or powerless in relation to the adults in the film – the kids have all the power. The bright pink motel walls and the purple doors seem very loud at first in order to construct a sense of hyper reality. It fools the audience into thinking Moonee’s castle is her happy space. It absorbs us into this bubble, quickly letting us forget that this motel won’t hold any happy endings for any of them. The color and shot complexity aids the unraveling of the story. It reminds us that we mistakenly make assumptions of things that look beautiful on the outside. In truth, the walls are a fortress surrounding Moonee’s incredibly uneasy home life. The false sense of hope and safety makes the impact of the film’s ending that much harsher because of the childlike wonder and imagination we get wrapped up in since the beginning. This film isn’t firmly planted between reality and fantasy nor does it go back and forth between the two. They occur simultaneously. The reality is wrapped around Moonee’s fantasy is like a blanket smothering all sides of a person, it eventually becomes suffocating and too much for Moonee to handle in the end.

“We’ve been watching Moonee use her imagination and wonderment throughout the entire film to make the best of the situation she’s in—she can’t go Disney’s Animal Kingdom, so she goes to the ‘safari’ behind the motel and looks at cows; she goes to the abandoned condos because she can’t go to the Haunted Mansion. And in the end, with this inevitable drama, this is me saying to the audience, ‘If you want a happy ending, you’re gonna have to go to that headspace of a kid because, here, that’s the only way to achieve it” -Sean Baker

Baker geniusly takes the city of Orlando, specifically Kissimmee, Florida – a city I’m personally very familiar with – and deconstructs the perception of the tourist-heavy, theme-park-scattered, commercialist city. For me, this film took my warm familiarity with Orlando and made me very cynical of the rose-tinted city. It shows us that it really isn’t shiny on inside as it’s advertised. There’s a life outside the “happily ever after” city, which shines a light on poverty in America, but more specifically in places like Orlando. For most tourists and even Florida residents, Orlando is seen as a place to escape but for people like Moonee and Halley, it’s their own personal inescapable prison. It makes us wonder – why is there such a large population of impoverished families in a city full of commercialism? It asks us to question what we accept as magical in our perception and reevaluate a place that brings a lot of people joy but brings some people pain.

Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, and Valeria Cotto in The Florida Project (2017) © A24

Baker uses Disney as a recurring motif and theme of fantasy. The parallelism of the shots in the movie, Moonee’s name, and the name of the Magic Castle Motel are no playful coincidences. The Magic Castle Motel, otherwise known as Moonee’s version of the Magic Kingdom, isn’t the real thing but is the closest she’ll ever have to Disney. Disney is a direct representation of fantasy and unattainable dreams as we see from the very last shot of the movie where Jancey and Moonee run off to Magic Kingdom hand-in-hand in Moonee’s POV. By doing this, we can see what Moonee’s mind truly looks like and how she specifically perceives the world around her. Not only is Moonee’s mind a boundless playground but it also reminds me that, sadly, it’s her only place to escape from her difficult childhood. It ultimately made me painfully realize that Moonee’s innocence and naivety was a defense mechanism, sheltering her from the pain in her very young life. When we take one final glance at Cinderella’s Castle, we realize that this is Moonee’s true home and that she’s the only princess fit to rule it.

Nina Liang is a guest writer for Much Ado About Cinema. She can be found on twitter hereIf you would like to contribute your own essay or review to the site, please email, or use the contact form provided.

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