“The Florida Project” Is the Cinematic Antidote to Helicopter Parenting

“The Florida Project” Is the Cinematic Antidote to Helicopter Parenting
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Sean Baker’s new film, “The Florida Project,” which opens today, is the
cinematic antidote to helicopter parenting—and it’s artificially
sympathetic to the point of obliviousness. Halley (pronounced like the
comet, played by Bria Vinaite) is a young mother living in the
mauve-bathed Magic Castle motel, not far from the high-toll gates of
Disney’s Magic Kingdom. She lets her preschool-age daughter, Moonee
(Brooklynn Prince), run free all day, while she herself sprawls on her
bed slurping sodas and watching daytime TV, and it seems to be working:
Moonee is a bright, quick-witted kid with a sense of fun and of humor.
As seen in her extended romps with other kids—notably Scooty
(Christopher Rivera), who lives downstairs with his mother, and Jancey
(Valeria Cotto), who lives in the Futureland Inn motel, next door—Moonee
is a natural leader, the one with the ideas, the persuasive power, the
vocabulary, the imagination, the charisma. If you were looking to cast a
child actor from among the kids living in the area’s motels, Moonee,
quotably precocious and perceptive beyond her years, is the one you’d pick. When a pair of
Brazilian tourists find themselves stuck by accident in the downmarket
motel, Moonee, watching them argue in the lobby, says, “I can always
tell when adults are about to cry.”

Yet the hard poverty in which Moonee is being raised and the casual,
albeit fiercely devoted, parenting that she endures are depicted as all
too perfect, and all too easy for her. She and her friends romp through
the area largely unsupervised, exploring and—under Moonee’s
leadership—cadging, begging, playing cute for their small pleasures.
There’s no scraped knee or cut finger that might get infected, no
toothache or cavity, no asthma, no diarrhea, no childhood problem at all
that might put Halley and her parental attention or neglect to the
test—and no sense that the smart, perceptive Moonee is aware at all of
what’s missing. She’s intensely conscious of the gap in comforts and
pleasures that distinguishes her from more prosperous children, but not
of any gap in care or health.

In Baker’s view, motel society comes off as borderline idyllic. There’s nothing to fear from the adults near at hand; everyone is
basically good and nice. There are no drugs, except for grass; no dealers
or pimps hanging around; no tough, big kids to scare or bully the
younger ones (never mind that such big kids can be found in the poshest
suburbs). There’s an abandoned complex down the road, which—in a scene
reminiscent of one early in Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight”—shows Moonee, Jancey, and Scooty exploring a dilapidated and abandoned house. (Moonee
calls the tufts of insulation scattered on the floor “ghost poop.”)
They’re not scared, and there’s nobody scary at the complex, or, for
that matter, anywhere. Instead of facing trouble or meeting scary
strangers, the three kids make gleeful trouble, smashing a mirror,
throwing a toilet out the window, and starting a fire that becomes a
local spectacle. There is, it’s true, a creepy old child molester who
comes by the motel when the kids are playing outside, and he might as
well be wearing a neon label announcing his bad intentions. Fortunately,
the motel’s gruff but decent manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), sees what’s
going on and deals with him firmly.

Baker’s film is at its most insightful in its well-conceived scenes of
Halley and Moonee confronting indignities of class. For instance, Bobby
is required by the motel owners to prevent the residents from remaining
there for more than a month at a time (the period required to establish
legal residency); therefore, Halley and Moonee are forced, before the end
of the month, to spend twenty-four hours away from the Magic Castle.
Bobby moves their belongings from their room into storage, and they
spend the night in a neighboring motel—and, when that second motel gets
new management, another round of annoyances results. (The movie’s ironic
contrast between motel life and nearby Disney World bursts forth in a
single, magnificently bitter sequence that seems to dramatize the very
price of dreams.) Yet Baker’s approach to his protagonists is blinkered by his manifest
sympathy. He sees Halley’s self-delusions and outbursts of anger not as
destructive, or even self-destructive, but as natural responses to the
world of advertised pleasures and comforts from which she’s shut out.
Baker never seems to see the poor people in the film—the poor women in
the film—face to face, yet he also doesn’t assume a position as an
outsider, a position that the drama itself, and Baker’s approach to it,
builds into the movie.

The one character whom Baker sees eye to eye, without veneration or
condescension, is the long-suffering, bluff-humored Bobby, who’s caught
between his duties and his sympathies, and whose tough warmth and fierce
sense of protectiveness is balanced by both an awareness of what he’s
observing and a willful overlooking of it. Yet Baker’s identification
with Bobby seems accidental, even unconscious; it doesn’t structure the
drama or refine the movie’s point of view. Instead, it merely makes the
director’s presumed but unrealized intimacy with Halley and Moonee all
the less persuasive.

There’s one scene, especially, that is downplayed in the extreme. Halley
has a little business going, buying perfume wholesale and selling it to
Disney World-bound tourists, and when she’s caught by a security guard
and threatened with arrest she loses her bag of wares and turns to
prostitution. Moonee is taking a bath one day (and told by Halley to
stay there until she’s called) when a john, needing to use the toilet,
opens the door and, to his distress, finds her there. Yet Moonee never
asks Halley about the man who comes to visit, and Halley never
explains—any more than she explains why Moonee has to stay in the
bathroom for the duration of his visit. What’s more, it’s eventually
revealed that Halley has had not one but nine johns. It’s inconceivable
that Moonee doesn’t know that something is up; imagine what she hears
through the bathroom door. Instead, Baker sentimentalizes, with a
well-meaning but condescending benignity that reminds me of a satirical
scene—of high-school students putting on a skit about prostitution—in
the recent New York Film Festival movie “Mrs. Hyde.”

For all the variety of incident in “The Florida Project,” for all its
careful observation of characters, it’s as emotionally inauthentic and
fantastic, under the guise of its hard-edged and warmhearted realism,
as the Disneyfied realm with which Baker contrasts it. The movie’s
halcyon dramatic narrowness is all the more unfortunate in the light of
what Baker can do when he’s looking at his characters—at his actors—with
unvarnished simplicity. At the start of the movie, Moonee is introduced
with an exquisite glimpse; she and a friend are sitting side by side,
leaning against a wall. When Moonee tilts her head back and bumps it
against the wall, she reacts with as much surprise as pain, both rubbing
her head and frowning as if in anger at the nerve of the wall to get in
her way. In an instant, Baker captures the mysterious complexities of a
child’s inner life. That’s why it’s all the odder that this nuanced,
intensely aware little person at the center of his film, whose love for
her mother is obvious, should nonetheless seem so obliviously unaffected
by her mother’s distraction, bitterness, rage, passivity, impotence, and


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