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The Florida Project [Review]

Note: This review does not spoil key plot points.

The Florida Project was the best film of 2017. I have been waiting for some time to write my review; the gravity of this film’s message demanded both multiple viewings and careful reflection. I can now say that Sean Baker has put together a magnificent and enduring work of art. The Florida Project is a gritty take on the elusivity and hollowness of the American dream. It tells a story about systemic poverty by reliving the simple joys and sorrows of a child named Moonee.

Moonee and her mother Halley are semi-permanent residents at the Magic Castle—a cheap and disheveled motel managed by a well-intentioned man named Bobby.[1] Despite its dinginess, Baker’s careful direction makes the Magic Castle feel like a true home for Moonee. While abandoned shopping carts dot the parking lot and trash bags pile up outside motel room doors, Moonee and her friends transform the space into a playground through youthful exuberance. Their romps are set amidst the gaudy trappings of America’s consumerist mecca (Orlando, Florida)—a city known for entertaining families with expendable cash.

But Baker never shows us the Orlando that functions as a rite of passage for so many American children. We never experience the “magic” of Disney—an illusion crafted to convince the well-off that anything is possible. Instead, the camera follows a plucky community of outcasts as they create their own world of endless diversion. Moonee and her friends make the most of summer break: marking up walls with crayons, planning pranks, and exploring every nook and cranny of the motel and its surroundings. Some of the most brilliant cinematic moments are wide-angle shots of the kids navigating freeways and other public lands, showing that any space can become a “backyard” for children.[2] All the while, they remain blissfully ignorant of what’s happening in the adult world. The children effortlessly find adventure in the mundane, while the adults struggle against the hard realities of living paycheck-to-paycheck, managing dysfunctional relationships, and navigating welfare systems.

Baker tackles these hard realities with fairness. His portrayal of Moonee’s mother Halley, for example, never paints her as a helpless victim of circumstance—her actions and their consequences are clear. But at the same time, Baker highlights the intimate bond shared by mother and child. The two are inseparable. The purity of their love helps them make light of dire situations most of us couldn’t imagine navigating. And here is where the rubber meets the road.

The film ultimately raises the question: “When should society break up a family to protect a child?” There is no simple answer.
The greatest accomplishment of this film is how it places us in the shoes of those who have no agency, the children who are forced to grow up quickly, the children who have the same hopes and desires (and mischievous streaks) that all children have, but are living in the shadow of a paradise that simply isn’t meant for them.

Baker’s work stands in a class of its own. The Florida Project is a beautiful testament to the universality of childhood innocence, but it also shows how an unjust and sinful world robs some children of even the few good things they have. This juxtaposition between childlike wonder and the instability of life for the poor drives the film’s plot to dramatic heights. To say more would be a waste of words: you are better off experiencing the story for yourself.[3]

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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