Review: The Florida Project

While most of my fiction reviews are directly Disney related, The Florida Project is a little different in that it is a fictional movie set near Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. The movie is about Halley, a very young single mom, and her daughter Moonee who live in The Magic Castle, a budget hotel in an area that caters largely to Disney World tourists and low income extended stay guests. The challenging circumstances of the main characters are not caused by Disney World but the setting serves as a backdrop that poignantly contrasts the difficult realities of real life with the shining clean artificial world of the theme park next door. It is easy to try to paint people in one color – they’re either good or bad – but people often present multiple conflicting truths and The Florida Project presents that reality very well. Halley’s conflicting truths are that she really does love her daughter and she really is a train wreck. Mooney is a clean, happy, and delightfully mischievous and Halley provides for her basic needs, albeit in ways that are not always legal, but Mooney is also left unattended in ways that leave any sensible person with a sense of dread. In one scene, Halley goes to a lot of effort to make a birthday special for Moonee’s best friend by taking the girls and hitchhiking to where they can see the Disney World fireworks; it was really sweet but, doggone it, you put yourself and the kids at risk by getting int a car with a stranger, Halley! In another scene, a creepy man takes an inappropriate interest in the children who live in the hotel and is very firmly dealt with by Bobby, the hotel manager who is does a heroic job of treating the extended stay residents with understanding while holding a firm line against their excesses. You’re thankful that Bobby is there but you also realize that he is having to step in and provide the type of protection that should come from better parenting. Moonee is a resourceful and happy child and you can’t help but cheer her on, even when she is behaving like a budding young con artist, but you know that trouble is coming and life won’t always be kind or good to Moonee.

What I loved about the movie

The Florida Project steers away from platitudes and simple answers because life isn’t always simple. When you watch Halley’s parenting, you can’t help but see problems but you also find yourself wondering, “Where is Moonee’s father? Where are the grandparents?” Halley is not a great parent but she is doing it from a place rooted in love and she is doing it alone. Does that make her a bad mom, a good mom or something far more complex? The movie depicts other low income families doing the best the they can in their circumstances and sometimes that results in a touchingly supportive community while it breeds conflict in other cases. There is a scene where Family Services appropriately gets called into the situation and you wrestle with whether Moonee is better off staying with her mess of a mom who genuinely loves her or in the foster care system, which we all know also has its problems. The movie gives us a glimpse into circumstances that play out in communities everywhere and it does so without falling to either hopelessness or simplistic “solutions” that only work in the movies. The movie leads you to questions about what we can or even should do rather than taking you to a specific conclusion.

Another great thing about this movie is that it shows that simple acts of kindness and decency actually can make a difference, especially in the lives of people who are in difficult circumstances. There is a scene where a charitable group brings free bread and you know that an arm load of white bread doesn’t provide a long term solution to anything going on for the people at The Magic Castle but it does meet an immediate need where lack of food is a real and pressing worry. The manager Bobby is a good man; someone who does right by the people around him with a quiet, unassuming strength. If you have a good life, you’ve no doubt been touched by at least one person who lives their life that way. You also see people in difficult circumstances go out of their way to be helpful to one another. When you are struggling to get by on service industry wages, the person who watches your kid for free while you pick up a shift is a lifeline.

The movie is also good in that it doesn’t gloss over or romanticize Halley’s poor choices. There is another single mom in the hotel who holds down a job at a nearby restaurant; Halley doesn’t seem to be able to hold down a legitimate job. Halley is belligerent and foul-mouthed and Moonee has learned those things from her mom. Some of their situation is beyond their control but there is wisdom to not making a hard situation worse.

Viewer Warnings: This is a movie has a lot of heart but it is not a squeaky clean, feel good movie that wrap everything up in an easy moral at the end. Because of the serious themes and prolific profanities, I do not recommend this movie for children or tweens. Because it handles the circumstances and characters so well, I would recommend the movie for thoughtful teens, especially ones with a heart for making the world a better place, but you’ll definitely want to plan on some discussions to help them process the different elements. You’ll also want to be aware that Halley turns to prostitution to earn money but, other than other characters referencing the fact and a man seen leaving Halley’s hotel room, nothing graphic is shown.

The Magic Castle Inn and Suites actually exists and there is a funny scene where the kids are screaming at and flipping off the tourists who on the helicopter tours that take off and land, take off and land, take off and all day long next door to the hotel. If you lived there, you would feel that way too. I took these pictures of those locations when I was recently in the area. Actual gift shops, ice cream shops and other area businesses also show up in the movie.

 The Magic Castle Inn and Suites and helicopter tour as seen in The Florida Project.

The Magic Castle Inn and Suites and helicopter tour as seen in The Florida Project.

I watched The Florida Project on AmazonPrime and it is available on DVD. It is not currently available on NetFlix

You might also like: Disney World is alluded to in the way a lot of people think of Heaven, a place where all our troubles just magically disappear. That can be really attractive when life insists on throwing hard and heartbreaking things your way and you really hope that Moonee gets to Disney World someday. If you enjoy The Florida Project and aren’t put off by the language, you might also enjoy the book Our Kingdom of Dust by Leonard Kinsey which also tackles the appropriate role of Disney magic and the dangers of escapism in our hard circumstances.

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