The Florida Project ★★★★★

"If more stories are told about marginalized communities, subcultures and minorities, the less marginalized they will be." Sean Baker

You might take from the poster that this film is just a schlocky sentimental fairy tale of a little girl living in a world that's far harsher than her own imagination, but you'd be wrong. This is not just Moonee's story, though her childlike lens often provides a humorous and humanistic lens to the daily goings on she observes. But it's also her mother's story, the tough and rebellious Halley, and the story of Bobby, a gruff but kindhearted hotel manager that is not entirely able to disassociate himself from the lives of those who pay to stay in his hotel.

It's a glimpse into the lives of those we often drive by without noticing. The "welfare queens" and the impoverished, of all races. They live week to week in the hotel, grifting where they can and sometimes seeking harder ways in order to pay for $38 a night. Their choices aren't judged here, but their lives are also not shown with a naive sense of sentimentality. These are flawed human beings, just like the rest of us, who sometimes laugh and cry and sometimes do things that hurt each other. This isn't a romanticization of poverty or a pretense at condescending empathy, but simply the truth, in both it's beauty and ugliness.

What makes The Florida Project so good is that it doesn't shy away from harshness of reality, while also giving a voice to a child to say what she is thinking and feeling as life passes her by. Moonee is never silenced here, her voice is as loud as her mother's and even when people attempt to silence her she just speaks even louder.

Halley too is a strong presence, a mother who is not fully grown up yet, but always willing to love her daughter and her daughter's friends as deeply as possible, fighting an ever harder fight to keep them fed and clothed with a roof over their head.

And Bobby, played by a career best performance from Willem Dafoe, who is so amazing at being gruff one minute and gentle the next, shows the hardships of those just trying their best to be a haven for the ones in need, not always making the best choices, but always doing what they can when they can.

There is an episodic feel to the story, an anthology of little stories, all wrapped around the narrative of life for the mother and her daughter, with all it's beautiful and sad moments. The film almost feels like a documentary in its detachedness, not trying to peddle any specific moral, but just showing us what is happening. And in this we are able to see real human lives.

That this is all filmed, and told, on the outskirts of Disney World, and is, in Baker's own words, a sort of juxtaposition of the fairy tale stories coming out of Disney (the beautiful princess and her brave mother fighting the monsters of life), adds a whole new layer. One can drive past these hotels on their way Disney World without even a second glance, never realizing that the magic and fantasy of the "Magic Kingdom" is just that, a fantasy, and the reality is far less magical. That the hotel is called The Magic Castle, and painted and modeled after Disney World is even more powerful. Moonee lives in her imagination, but she can't hide from the harsh realities of her world either, she has to pick up free food from a friend, and donations from the bread truck, all around her as she runs and plays are signs of the poverty she lives in, but she finds a way to brighten even these aspects. She knows her story isn't fantastical and magical, but she makes it magical anyways by just enjoying the small things as much as she can, like sharing an ice cream with her friends, or taking a bath, or exploring abandoned houses on the highway. Of course she sometimes gets into trouble and has to face consequences, but she always faces it all with a laugh and a smile. She isn't weighed down yet. She's still young enough to have a favorite tree, which looks like something out of a fantasy novel, a giant and gnarled maze of branches and trunk, covered with spanish moss.

But what happens when reality becomes so harsh that even a child can't find beauty in it. The last sequence of this film will break your heart for its brutal honesty, and the way Moonee seeks solace in the fairy tales she's grown up with and near. You will leave this film with a heaviness because it doesn't end on a hopeful note, but it does tell a powerful story that needs to be seen and heard more, that of the ones forgotten and marginalized by society as we chase after our fairy tales and dreams. I hope, as Baker says, that as more of these stories are told, truthfully, that the marginalized will be less so, as we all take concrete action to create a little more hope in the world where there is less and less by the day.

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