It’s hard to make a good movie about kids. It’s a completely different mission than making a “kids movie.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that family films as a genre are intellectually inferior or anything. Just look at “Coraline,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” or “Spirited Away,” to name a few great examples of art made for kids.
But sometimes movies about kids rather than for kids feel like how all these pandemic-themed TV shows and movies do — I came to watch a movie to escape pandemic life, so let me be! Likewise, childhood is already deeply traumatic and heartbreaking and confusing and lonely, and kids need some movies that can help them escape that experience rather than mirror it. Nevertheless, movies like Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” or Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me” are important because they remind us that our nostalgia about childhood might be a bit misguided.
That said, “The Florida Project,” directed by Sean Baker (“Tangerine”), is an equally impressive examination of childhood, likely due in large part to its mostly-improvised script. It’s beautiful, tender and vibrant, but it’s as filled with sorrow as it is color. If you missed it in the year when the Oscars were packed like sardines with some other killer films and didn’t seem to have much room for it, the film follows Halley (Bria Vinaite, “The OA”), a young mother in her early 20s, and her 6-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, “The Turning”) in their lives at The Magic Castle, a Florida hotel which doubly serves as de facto low-income housing. Centered around Moonee and her friends’ misadventures, it’s a master class in the freedom of troublemaking.
The film’s title is a nod to the motel’s proximity to Disney World — “The Florida Project” was one of the early names considered for the theme park before it was finished. While there are already some great pieces out there about the depiction of socioeconomic class in the film, it’s worth diving into again. And I’ve been clear in my feelings about Disney in the past, but it’s something that I feel deserves to be discussed at length.
And when I first saw “The Florida Project,” I was happily reminded of the times my family had visited Florida and stayed in a hotel like the one in the film, but that happiness was soon tainted with this enduring issue of class. There’s a scene where a wealthy man who had his assistant make his honeymoon reservations mistakenly ends up at The Magic Castle when he and his wife had meant to stay at the Magic Kingdom. The wife makes a huge fuss over it because it had been her dream to honeymoon at Disney World. She complains that they’re staying in a “welfare slum motel … gypsy project.” I wasn’t super-rich growing up, but I didn’t think that places that brought me such great memories would be so looked down upon.
That’s the real center of the film: judgment. People might want to paint the kids in “The Florida Project” as tragic, pathetic or even unloved, but none of those designations are accurate. Halley can’t get Moonee everything that she wants and she’s nowhere near a perfect mother, but it’s clear how much she loves her in the way she bathes her, plays with her and laughs with her. Even the things she does that people might think are morally wrong, she does for Moonee. It makes me think of the Mitski lyric: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I think I do.”
The kids’ lives aren’t perfect, but whose are? Childhood is (or was for me) rife with weird ideas about sexuality from movies, wishing you had your own room, vignettes of playing contentedly while your family chats over cigarettes, sinking feelings when you realize you’re in trouble, not understanding why your parents do what they do, but you still get a chance to look at the sky every day. And every day it looks different and more beautiful than the last.
There’s a moment from the film when Moonee sits on an overturned tree with one of her friends, and says, “You wanna know why this is my favorite tree? ‘Cause it’s tipped over, but still growing.” And that really sums up this film. There’s a backdrop of poverty and pain, but it’s just life, and as awful as life can be sometimes, sometimes it can also be joyful.
When you’re a kid, adults talk to you like you’re a baby and tell you it’s all going to be OK when, really, they don’t know themselves. They might get in physical fights in front of you and it’s scary. But then there are times when you’re sharing an ice cream cone with your best friend, and you don’t care about it dripping, getting the sugary stickiness all over yourself. You just keep growing even when you’re tipped over.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.