The Tragic Nostalgia of The Florida Project

Courtesy of A24 Films.

Courtesy of A24 Films.

There is at once a familiarity and grotesqueness conjured by images of the bright colors and off-brand amusements that abut the pearled gates of Disney World’s Orlando Florida mega-resort. The technicolored mix of grocery stores, ice cream stands, and adult movie emporia serve as the preverbal moat that moneyed entertainment-seeking families must cross to get to Cinderella’s Castle. And this is where the opening images of Sean Baker’s tragically nostalgic film, The Florida Project (2017), take place.

Amidst the sweltering Florida heat, six-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends Jancey and Scooty (Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera), spend their summer break defying rules and swindling tourists in the name of ice cream. They are residents at “The Magic Castle,” a three-story, neon-purple motel, and we watch the summer pass through their eyes. Most intimately, we meet Moonee’s struggling young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and Magic Castle manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe).

In the shadows of the capitalist utopia that is Disney, I’m reminded of the close proximity of wealth and privation. In an early scene, Moonee watches as two newlyweds argue with Bobby about their rooms in the very building that she lives in: “This was a mistake, we cannot stay here, you can’t even see the Magic Kingdom.”

I’ve been to Disney World more than once, and I admit feeling an odd comfort in some of the film’s images — a warm summer and its accoutrements, the palm trees, and the larger-than-life colors. Yet, I am jolted to reality by the stark contrast of my nostalgia against Moonee and her mother Halley’s struggle for survival. Like Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine, The Florida Project is an emotional slice-of-life, slowly pieced together and culminating in a harrowing final sequence that made me want to both smile and sob. My heart breaks for Moonee and her mother, not just because of their plight, but because I’m reminded just how easily the adult-world can flood the eyes of a child.

When Moonee escapes the arms of a foreboding Child Services Officer, she rushes to her friend Jancey’s motel room. There she stands, sobbing, unable to explain what she knows is inevitable.

“This may be the last time I see you,” she breathes, “and you’re my best friend.” Jancey grabs her hand, and they run.

Shot on iPhone cameras (like the whole of Tangerine), Baker and his crew, in this final sequence, do what Moonee and her friends have been doing all summer — they break the rules. The two girls end up staring wide-eyed at Cinderella’s Castle, although filming is not permitted in Disney Parks. I couldn’t help but smile at their momentary escape, but I know better now, and perhaps so do they. The thought of what might come next stings more intensely than the rays of the Florida sun. –Alex Minton

Alex Minton is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, where he studied American Studies. He lives and works in New York City and enjoys viewing theater in his free time. 

The Florida Project
Written by: Sean Baker and Chris Burgoch
Directed by: Sean Baker
Runtime: 115 min.
Rating: R