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Movie Review

Moonee lives in the shadow of the happiest place on earth. And for her, maybe it is.

The little girl calls the Magic Castle Inn & Suites home. No, it's not Disney World itself, but rather a garish pink hotel so close to the famous resort that she can hear the fireworks from the parking lot each night. She's never seen Cinderella's Castle, never taken the Jungle Cruise, never plunged down the waterfall in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, never took a spin in those blasted teacups.

No matter: Orlando's kitschy tourist strip is all the wonderland she needs.

Forget dressing up like a princess: Moonee is queen here. And she and her knee-high subjects explore their steamy, cracked-concrete kingdom with gusto. They crawl through the ruins of ancient condos, tromp through cow fields, whisper rumors of alligators, beg for money from tourists. Ice cream becomes ambrosia in their sticky hands. Every endless summer day offers its own slice of wonder.

Such is the joy of a summer without adult supervision, a pack of 6- and 7-year-olds wandering through streets lined with discount souvenir stores and aimless vagrants. Their parents? Like Mickey and Minnie in the park across the way, they're rarely seen, sequestered to small hotel rooms or occasional cameos.

Yes, children may be free to run and dream here. But the adults? They must do the hard work of living.

True, Moonee's mother, Halley, runs free sometimes herself—decking herself out in hip-high miniskirts and tummy-baring tops. She soaks in the pool and smokes funny-smelling cigarettes. But life costs money, and she gets it any way she can.

Halley's struggled to find a job. Her tattoos bar her from a job at Disney. Her attitude eliminates almost every other position. So she sells cut-rate perfume in the parking lots of posh hotels—or, at least, until the security guards catch on. She's not above asking for the occasional handout or hustling the occasional tourist.

But as Halley's already modest money springs slowly dry up, she grows more desperate. And Moonee's future grows more precarious.

The happiest place on earth? For Moonee, perhaps Orlando is. To see the world through a child's eyes is to see it beautiful and new—to find adventure in a utility closet and magic in a summer day.

But eyes grow older and circumstances change. And just like a Disney World guest who wanders well off the path, Moonee may soon discover what shadowed reality lies behind the carefree façade.

Positive Elements

The Magic Castle is home to a motley assortment of resident guests, folks who lurk at the fringes of society. Most are one bad week away from living in the streets … or worse.

Folks like these are often ignored in society, and The Florida Project does a service, it could be argued, by revealing this world—barely seen and rarely acknowledged by the cash-toting tourists who plunk down eight bucks for a hot dog. This movie shows us their humanity and, in some cases, their dignity. Most are doing the best they can for the people they love. And, in the process, the Magic Castle becomes (in its own broken way) a friendlier, more loving neighborhood than many comfy, isolated suburbanites have ever known.

Bobby, the hotel manager, oversees the goings-on at the Magic Castle; he's a shepherd to a flock of incredibly difficult sheep. Sure, he knows the place is a dump. But he wants it to be a nice, livable dump. So he paints the façade. He promises to fix the broken washing machines. He dutifully tapes up bed-bug-infested mattresses and throws them away.

He cares for the residents too. Bobby keeps an eye on the hotel's posse of children. He tries, when possible, to give the adults holed up there a little grace. He seems to have a special soft spot for Halley and her little girl, protecting the desperate young woman from an angry former "customer" of hers, smoothing over her frictions with others and even offering to dole out some of his own precious cash so that Halley and Moonee won't go homeless for a night.

When things start to go really awry, Bobby does what he can to protect and reassure Moonee. Sure, what he tells her might be a lie; Bobby can't know. But it's what Moonee needs to hear right at that moment.

Spiritual Content

Members of a church (or perhaps a faith-based charitable group) regularly visit the Magic Castle hotel, doling out bread and rolls to the residents. (Moonee selects her and Halley's share with practiced confidence, demanding a bit of everything.) We hear one of the volunteers say, "God bless."

Moonee and her friend, Scootie, take a new companion named Jancey and introduce her to the "neighborhood," pointing to doors and telling her who lives there. "The man who lives in here, he gets arrested a lot," they say. "This woman thinks she's married Jesus."

When a helicopter flies overhead, Jancey shouts at it with a litany of mocking praise. "Hallelujah!" She shouts. "Thank you! Praise Jesus!" She, Moonee and Scootie tromp through a bevy of long-deserted condos and find insulation covering a floor—which Moonee calls "ghost poop." Moonee and Jancey see a rainbow and discuss the leprechaun that's guarding the gold at the end of it. "I wish the leprechaun was nice," one says as they go off in search of it.

Sexual Content

Bobby confronts a topless guest—an older woman with voluminous breasts (in a scene played more for sad humor than anything else). They're partially obscured, but still mostly visible to the camera—and to Moonee, Scootie and Jancey, who are peeking over a wall and giggling. (Scootie marvels that the woman's breasts are so big that they could cover his face; he later suggests to Bobby to try and smash his face into them.) When Bobby covers the woman up, she tells him that he touched her breasts, accuses him of sexual assault and threatens to call the police. (She doesn't.)

After Halley loses most of her monetary resources, she tells Moonee to change into her bathing suit: They're going to take "swimsuit selfies," she says. Halley's suit is an extremely skimpy two-piece bikini, and she poses seductively.

For a time thereafter, Moonee takes a lot of unsupervised baths. We see the little girl from the shoulders up, mostly playing and washing her dolls' hair in the tub. But one night, a strange man walks into the bathroom. We hear Halley, off-camera, tell the man that the bathroom's off limits; Moonee—feeling scared and exposed—closes the bathroom curtain on the stranger.

By now, the audience suspects why Halley wanted to take "swimsuit selfies" and why Moonee takes so many baths these days: Halley is sexually entertaining "customers" in the next room. Soon, her (illegal) activity becomes an open secret: A suspicious Bobby demands that her "guests" check in, with their real names, in the lobby. (He apparently hopes to dissuade them from visiting at all).

Halley's friend Ashley confronts Halley with her own ad: When Halley denies that it's her, Ashley reminds her that her tattoos give the game away. A "client" storms up to Halley's room, accusing her (rightly) of stealing his family's passes into Disney World. Bobby, in an effort to protect Halley, tells the man that he'll be happy to call the police—thus revealing his presumed "business" with Halley to the man's wife and kids. As Bobby talks, Halley makes lewd gestures behind his back that her client can see. (The man storms off, despite losing $1,600 in passes.) Eventually, the authorities get involved, and it's revealed the hotel has video evidence that at least nine different men came and left Halley's room over a certain period of time.

Bobby runs off a presumed pedophile, an older man who wanders over to a group of unsupervised kids and begins chatting them up. Halley and her friend Ashley dress provocatively for a night on the town, and they both hang out at the pool in skimpy bikinis. A woman talks about her need for a sexual encounter. A scene involves a bloody feminine pad removed and plastered (in angry protest) on a glass door.

Scootie finds (or perhaps steals) a lighter that he proudly says has a naked lady on it. Jancey asks Scootie if he'd like to get married. "Not right now," he says. And when she tells him that he can kiss the bride, he reiterates, "I said, not right now!" Moonee mimics her mom's sultry dance moves, twerking and shaking her "booty."

Violent Content

Halley throws a woman down and repeatedly punches her in the face. The actual blows are obscured by a bed, but we see the recipient's bruised visage later. A couple is fighting in the parking lot when one of them gets hit by a car and tossed over the vehicle's roof.

Scootie, Moonee and Jancey accidentally set fire to some deserted condos, leading to a "free show" for the Magic Castle's residents. Halley, clueless about her daughter's involvement, forces Moonee to pose in front of the conflagration.

Crude or Profane Language

Nearly 80 f-words and another 25 s-words, some of which are uttered by children. We also hear several uses of "a--," "b--ch" and "d--n." God's name and Jesus' name are both misused twice each. We see several crude hand gestures.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Halley smokes quite a bit, and she often tokes on what appear to be marijuana joints. She gives another woman marijuana buds in a baggy (getting them out of her room, which she suspects will be searched by Social Services workers), telling her that she has to use them all. Characters drink various alcoholic beverages.

Other Negative Elements

Halley cheats and lies almost constantly. Sometimes it's to pay her rent and finagle food for herself and her daughter. Sometimes, quite frankly, it's to preserve her own sense of self-worth. She sees herself as a victim, constantly misunderstood and maligned by others. Most often, though, her own attitudes and actions undercut both her life and her relationships, and she's either unable or unwilling to take responsibility.

Not surprisingly, Halley's an incredibly permissive mother, allowing her daughter to go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything. And Halley's approach to parenting (or lack thereof) is unintentionally imbuing her daughter with the same sense of fast-talking irresponsibility and victimhood (as we see when Moonee tries to dodge responsibility after she and her friends spit on a family's car).

Conclusion

Love, it's been said, can move mountains. But sometimes, love isn't enough.

Halley loves her daughter. I've no doubt of that. She gives Moonee gifts when she can. They play in the rain. They take Jancey to an open field for her birthday, where they watch Disney World's fireworks explode in the distance. It's a lovely moment—perhaps among this film's most moving.

But Halley doesn't know how to responsibly love her daughter. She can't or won't set boundaries. She abides by no rules or societal strictures herself, so how would (or why should) she pass any on to Moonee? She has little ambition to move beyond her present circumstances and create a better life for her and her daughter.

The Florida Project has been described as a dramedy, and I suppose it is in some ways. It's earned praise and generated awards-season buzz for actresses Bria Vinaite (Halley) and the utterly charming Brooklynn Prince (Moonee). But while the film has some funny moments, I walked out of the theater feeling very, very sad. This movie felt like a tragedy to me: a tiny family slowly drowning—incapable of swimming, unwilling to grab lifelines dangling by the pool.

One beautiful summer day, Moonee and Jancey park themselves on the trunk of a sideways tree garbed in green and draped in Spanish moss.

"You know why this is my favorite tree?" Moonee asks her friend. "It's tipped over and it's still growing."

It seems a clear metaphor for Halley and Moonee, and perhaps for most of the residents of the Magic Castle. And I get that to some extent. We see decent, largely forgotten people there living and somehow still growing—like flowers in the cracks of sidewalks or Moonee's tipped-over tree.

But Halley, it seems, is less a tree and more a moth, mesmerized by the flame of a candle—furious when she gets burned but unable to learn, dancing with the flame to the end.

And she forces her baby moth to dance with it, too.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Brooklynn Prince as Moonee; Bria Vinaite as Halley; Willem Dafoe as Bobby; Mela Murder as Ashley; Valeria Cotto as Jancey; Christopher Rivera as Scooty; Caleb Landry Jones as Jack

Director

Sean Baker ( )

Distributor

A24

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

November 10, 2017

On Video

February 20, 2018

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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