In "The Florida Project," Willem Dafoe joins a cast of female characters struggling to get by without traditional gender roles.
In an early scene of The Florida Project, two women watch three children clean spit off a car, arguing over whether one of the children, who didn't spit on the car, should be helping to clean. The girl in question isn't either woman's daughter, but they fuss over her anyway. When the dispute resolves, it's more because both women see that the children have worked things out for themselves than because they've reached any sort of resolution. But, as soon becomes clear, these women—each long-term residents of motels located in Disney World's shadow—aren't enemies in the way two suburban neighbors who disagree over childcare might be. Though they have their disputes, mostly stemming from the children each cares for, they also rely on one another for support.
Like director Sean Baker's previous film Tangerine (2015), which he also co-wrote with Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project centers largely on female support networks built up in the absence of men, and the ways in which these women build spaces for life to exist in the midst of extreme poverty and hardship. In the case of Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), life looks like struggling for work, improvising entertainment, and a network of friends whose support makes the difference between the survival or collapse of their family unit.
Moonee's dad isn't in the picture, and her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) is also being raised by a single mother. The kids' friend Dicky (Aiden Malik) lives with his single father, and they soon meet Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who's being raised by her single grandmother. Moonee and Scooty are partners in crime, and the same is true of Moonee's mom Halley and Scooty's mom Ashley (Mela Murder). While Ashley goes to work at her restaurant job, Halley takes care of the kids, which mostly looks like resolving disputes with various adults upset over Moonee and Scooty's antics. Though it's not what most would consider a traditional family, it functions a lot like one, with Halley taking some degree of responsibility for both children, while Ashley sneaks free pancakes to Halley and the kids.
And it's a life, one in which the characters struggle to get by, but also do far more than just survive. Halley and Ashley genuinely care for one another, creating the space for their children to feel loved and mostly safe in the midst of extreme poverty. Moonee's days involve helping sell perfume in a Disney hotel parking lot and watching her mom struggle to convince a state worker to give them discount bus passes, but there's also room for ice cream, carefully orchestrated bathtimes, and hitchhiking to watch the Disney World fireworks on special occasions. There's potential for improvement, too—Ashley is trying to get Halley a job at the restaurant, and the women watch out for each other as various men come and go in their lives. When the kids have gone to bed, there's time for them to talk, share a joint or a couple of beers, and hang out in the motel pool.
The film's strength lies in this ability to show us how, though things aren't perfect—and a lot of it is devastating—there's good here, too. Through the eyes of Moonee, Scooty, and Jancey, we're able to see real joy in this intensely difficult life, and their parents' ability to turn a run-down motel into a home is evidence that there is something that looks like stability here. Conforming to any sort of traditional gender roles is both impossible and the last thing on anyone's mind, with women serving simultaneously as caretakers and breadwinners. Halley's main source of male support comes from Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel manager who also serves as childcare backup, such as when he chases away a creepy old man getting too close to the kids. There are men living here too, such as Dicky's father, but he doesn't seem to have strong interpersonal ties to others in the community, and ends up moving away. It's the women who end up staying around, perhaps because they care about each other, and perhaps also because they have no other choice.
Which makes it all the more devastating when we see how easily this measure of security, built up by surpassing and ignoring traditional family values, can still break down due to an inability to live up to those values. Though there's a lot behind Halley and Ashley's falling out, a major factor is that Ashley feels betrayed by Halley pursuing sex work while she was supposed to be watching Ashley's son. We get a glimpse of the fact that a man, perhaps Scooty's father, is back in Ashley's life, making it easier for her to stop relying on Halley for childcare. And we see Halley's ability to care for Moonee falter as she loses support from Ashley and is forced to take more and more clients just to make enough money for food.
Rather than idealizing or patronizing characters in extreme poverty, The Florida Project explores how humanity can still exist in such hardship, without ignoring how tenuous such a life can be. Trouble, when it arrives, comes in the form of state institutions with neither the ability nor the desire to forgive Halley for failing to live up to impossible moral standards. Tellingly, the film doesn't show Halley and Moonee overcoming this roadblock, or end on another note of falsely redemptive hope. Instead, it allows the audience to turn away into a gorgeous fantasy, marred slightly by the knowledge that in real life, this is not how the story ends.
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