I quickly gathered from the repetition and the drawn out sounds of the children names, that these were names Baker chose for a purpose. Moo-oonee! Scoo-otyy! These are names made to be thrown and to flow over large spaces, highways and car parks. Names selected purposefully to be pronounced phonetically, to articulate these syllables in order to call for each other. These were names chosen so mothers could call their kids indoors for supper, names prepared to scream at the likely chance that something bad could happen to these kids in the projects of Orlando, Florida.
I watched ‘The Florida Project’ alone at London’s Curzon cinema on a particular Sunday when I was suffering from pathetic fallacy as I do, feeling withdrawn under the grey London sky. I entered the dark screen in the tense way you would enter an exam hall, nervous slightly. I had to see it because rapper Drake swore he was obsessed with it and that was all I needed to know. I’d seen the trailer and the ‘The Florida Project’ seemed to me, as stirring and odd as a gripping anecdote I’d only heard the beginning of. I'd heard enough to want to know more.
Before making my way over to the cinema, I'd gone to my university library on a weekend, with only my music shuffling to keep me company. Recently discovering and abusing Lana Del Rey’s ‘Ultraviolence’ album, I couldn’t get enough of the last track on the album called ‘Florida Kilos’ where Del Rey sings like a groggy baby, almost like an early Britney Spears attempting to sound cute, as she tells you to ‘‘come on down to Flor-I-da. I’ve got something for ya.’’ Ironic how sweet she sounds, how addictive this song had become and how enticing Del Rey’s pleas became as she advertises guns in the summertime and snorting lines, while promising ‘‘prison isn't nothing to me, if you’ll be by my side.’’
My badass music choice was random but relevant. Being a Londoner, I wondered since when was the sunshine state known for drugs? This was news that I'd clearly missed. Or was I just sleeping under a red, white and blue rock? My understanding of Florida was Disney World, lots of sun, tanning and tourists. But it turns out that literally living in the shadows of this Mickey Mouse empire is cheap motel accommodation for the lower class, which in the film is run by kind, but fed up Motel manager Bobby played by Willem Dafoe.
The film follows part time exotic dancer and young rebel mother Halee, her daughter Moonee and best friend Scooty's lives spanning over a summer. They are living foot to mouth in a bright purple motel called ‘The Magic Castle’ in Orlando, Florida. Halee is a heavy smoker who’s just been fired, and struggling to pay her rent to Bobby. She majorly lacks in disciplining and taking care of her child Moonee, who is to say the least, a handful. Halee's a reckless young woman with a rotten attitude. She’s covered in tattoos and wears, as Bobby expresses, her pyjamas all day. She rages through the motel lobby with her distinctive green ombré hair, booty shorts and flip flops.
Halee’s desperation and awkward charm comes through when she’s portrayed as a ok-ish mother trying to stay afloat financially, and using her daughter Moonee as bate. Her main hustle is to sell wholesale perfume to tourists outside hotels where she’s constantly shooed away by hotel security. When she's clearly in a financial pit and the weekly rent is due, Halee comes up with cash weekly to the surprise of Bobby, who declares strict rules that all tenants must follow daily, while in the same breathe wishing and hoping to catch Halee and Moonee, so he can get rid.
The movie is overwhelmed with Moonee and best friend Scooty’s sessions playing outside. It's instantly alarming, the lack of supervision these children nurse and the amount of freedom they hold; the pure gall and confidence to play far from home, to stop at diners and to cross fields and roads for the hell of it, is almost unrealistic to the audience. Or is it to Floridians?
The film began in the midst of a frustrating scene consumed with Mooney and Scootee’s session playing outside — a place they may as well call home, they're there so often. To pass the time, they begin by coming up with a competition, to spit on a neighbours windshield causing a ruckus soon to become minor in comparison to what's to come. Due to the first of many complaints about Scootee and Moonee, they meet a sweet red head girl named Jancey through her furious mother and right there, they form an uneven trio set to cause more trouble in and out of the motel.
It's in Moonee's posture, her attitude and the quick fire smart answers she delivers to adults which are justification enough as to why she thrives as the group leader; fearless in her disobedient pursuits, every bit taught and encouraged solely by her mother, Halee. This is made clear when the kids burn down an abandoned home and Moonee feels no remorse, and facing no repercussions by Halee, whereas for Scooty and his mother it causes a drastic adjustment which affects the kids and the young mothers alike.
It’s Moonee’s world and we’re just living in it. Her universe is ice-cream flavoured thanks to Baker’s cinematography and impressive use of colour, and the motel is her Disneyland as she scrambles around looking for adventures all over the place. As annoying and naughty as she is, there’s something adorable about Moonee. There’s her name for starters, the long hair she takes extra special care of, and the ravenous love she has for her mother is overwhelming. Played by Brooklynn Prince, her acting skills comes off sometimes as if she were attempting to impress Baker, in that awkward way that some kids never seem to be actually acting, rather like they’re showing off.
Moonee’s a diva. If she's hungry, Scooty's mother provides Moonee with free food from the diner she works at, if she’s peckish Moonee begs strangers to buy her vanilla ice-cream and teaches innocent Jancey how to follow through as well. If she's bored Scooty is available to play with outside and he’ll happily accompany her to annoy the life out of Bobby. The importance of Scooty’s presence as a brother figure is made clear once Moonee and Scooty are not allowed to hang out together anymore. The only relief Halee seems able to provide her daughter is laughs, burping contests, second hand smoke and a bath at night but not so Moonee’s kept clean — it’s so she’s out of the way.
There are hood brawls, drugs and danger everywhere at the Magic Castle. It’s a ghetto paradise, an oxymoron. The film reveals the dangers and grit of Florida, and yet the entire production is wrapped in sweet bubble-gum simultaneously. The colour scheme Baker provides here is like nothing I’ve ever seen in film. It’s like Baker used a mood ring for a camera almost. Other motels in the residing area like ‘The Magic Kingdom’ are painted with cheap block colours too, as are the restaurants and the sky line. Character outfits are clearly chosen for particular scenes and backdrops for effect and sentiment. Ironically, Halee’s hair and backpack are green like the money she yearns and searches for the entire film. It’s also the colour of the jealousy and monsters.
The story is told mostly through the way Moonee understands her life to be. Fun and uncharted. The camera shoots low for the kid’s scenes and higher up for the adults, perception clearly integral throughout the film but more so near the end. We are kept in the dark about a few truths for some time, until the reality of the situation bleeds through. When Halee is in a bind, we too are wrapped up in bills, complaints and stress. We are sitting in shorts and a cheap vest, toes tucked into the duvet. We are this confident woman sitting in a dark motel room, not caring that the rent is due and that Moonee’s done something wrong again. We continue smoking, and ignoring the world and its realities.
There were two scenes that literally made me squeal out loud and bite into my coat. The first one was when Halee physically fought Scooty’s mother, and without spoiling why, this scene was brutal. I could taste the blood, I could hear and feel the bone being crushed and the rage leaving Halee’s body like a thick heat, combined with a sweaty frustration that was almost understandable but wrong nonetheless. It felt to me a rage only a trapped woman would possess, a woman who woke up on the wrong side of the bed, on a side of society she had chosen for herself – she hadn’t worked hard enough to not have this rage.
The second unexpected scene was when Halee and Bobby argue for like the twenty ninth time, and Bobby is at his wits end, asking her to leave his sight in three, two, one. He’s threatening to get rid of mother and daughter for good. Halee walks out of the reception area, knowing she does not want to get kicked out of ‘The Magic Castle’ and suddenly everything goes quiet. The camera is watching Halee from behind, and she seems to be rummaging in her pockets maybe? But, no. She whips out her feminine pad, covered in blood and violently sticks it on the glass facing Bobby. It’s enough to make you want to hurl, and Bobby simply groans, clearly used to Halee’s wild stunts.
Halee’s nonchalant attitude costs her a great deal in this film. Due to it, she loses friends, money, jobs and her integrity. She loses being able to show her daughter what is right and what is wrong, and that is in fact the saddest part of this movie. The awkward silences too conjure so much emotion, you can almost feel the Florida heat burn the apples of your cheeks, the warm tears leaving your eyes. Willem Dafoe’s character didn’t scare me at all as Bobby, not as much as I expected his character to. Not as much as I think he usually tries to do on purpose through his role choices. In fact, he was delightful, caring and like a father figure to Moonee and Scooty as well as all the other kids in the motel.
In one scene Bobby fights an old pervert hanging out in the motel park, who he assumes is a paedophile. Bobby has clear hunches that he follows, and takes part in battles he must win to keep the respect he’s gained. His strength is assured and righteous, in comparison to the sinning going on in the motels. He is everyone’s protector, everyone’s lick of purple paint – he is the mediator of all the tenants as well as their punching bag. Come on, he’s Bobby.
I didn’t cry at the end, but I was upset. I was sad for these kids generally, sad that though fictional characters, they grew up neglected like so many. They’re story is someone else’s too and it’s real, and true and happening right now. I was disappointed in some characters and I realised the story had reached my insides, it was sitting in my stomach.
I left the cinema, took in a breath and realised life was in full bloom outside, now a sort of ombré grey, or was it my view? I made my way home and thanked God that I don’t live in Orlando, Florida , that I was raised with amazing parents who value themselves and their children enough for me to know right from wrong, for me to write this piece, for me to watch a film about poverty in an expensive cinema. Del Rey’s says in Florida Kilos “people never die in Miami’’ and I’m not sure if that’s true. Sometimes, people are dead inside.