‘I feel sorry for her,” says a little girl observing a young woman in her twenties in The Florida Project, and it’s the honesty of the moment that’s so ironic and funny. The little girl is destitute, living in a welfare motel and being raised haphazardly by her prostitute mother, while the adult woman is a posh Brazilian on her honeymoon who is used to staying in five-star hotels. Yet the little girl, just six, learns to take her joy where she can find it, and she can find it just about anywhere. Don’t feel sorry for us is the virtual motto of The Florida Project, a strangely enticing, even ebullient film about people near the bottom of society who are not just surviving but living.
Written and directed with rich texture by Sean Baker, The Florida Project, which just debuted at the New York Film Festival ahead of its release this week in theaters, is the latest in a vivid, intensely naturalistic new subgenre of white-trash cinema. I use the term not as a class insult — white trash doesn’t mean white working class. No, these films are about low-income whites who behave despicably. Take Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016) and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012). Such movies place reprehensible lifestyles under a microscope but maintain a rigorously non-judgmental air. If there is any disdain in them, it’s for bourgeois types who mostly follow the rules; these movies lack moral guidance, but they don’t pretend that their protagonists are beautiful, misunderstood souls.
There is a clear distinction between the white-trash movies and those about black Americans in similarly straitened circumstances — Precious (2009), Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), and last year’s Oscar winner, Moonlight. These celebrated films cast their protagonists as passive victims. All three are tearjerkers aimed mainly at activating the pity reflex of well-off white liberals, and all of them, crucially, center on children and teens in order to sidestep questions of personal agency.
In the white-trash films, on the other hand, the protagonists are mostly young adults, and they are gleefully, insistently, forcefully, and exhaustingly the authors of their own stories, including their own misfortunes. They spit on your pity. The only prospect that really frightens the young mom and her irrepressible six-year-old daughter in The Florida Project is the possibility of being “aided” by the pity-motivated do-gooders of the government child-protection agency.
The movie is a glimpse into the daily lives of two little girls and a boy — Moonee, Jancey, and Scooty — living in two adjacent fleabag motels in Orlando that amount to bottom feeders in the tourism ecosystem. Spending the days scampering around parking lots, cadging free meals, and on one occasion accidentally sort of burning down a vacant house, the three kids are disarmingly, hilariously, unnervingly real, completely unlike the eerily precocious stage-children you typically see in movies. The leader of the pack, Moonee, is played with uncontained attitude by Brooklynn Prince, in one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever seen by a child actor. Her mom, Halley (a fiercely credible Bria Vinaite) is an ill-tempered tattoo-covered blond with no evident means of support except welfare, though we come to learn that she at times entertains gentlemen callers for money while Moonee is in the bath.
Life for these kids is harsh, even appalling, but the film is composed in a key of improbable exuberance, just as the neighboring $35-a-night motels where the kids live are defined both by their ugliness and their offbeat sense of community. Providing a steady hand on the tiller of this ship of lost souls is a kindly, patient manager played by Willem Dafoe. He lovingly repaints the exterior, gets a topless lady to cover up when she’s lounging by the pool, adjudicates the many disputes, and generally keeps things working. A scene in which he briskly dispatches a sweaty pervert lurking in the vicinity of the children is especially appealing, an excellent illustration of how communities go about maintaining order without assuming help will come from outside. In an earlier era the role might have been played by Henry Fonda or Gary Cooper, actors whose innate goodness was their brand. For Dafoe it’s unexpected, though: Seeing him play such a humane, sturdy fellow is as disorienting as Sean Penn’s saintly beaming in Milk. Who knew Dafoe could play a non-tortured guy?
Life for these kids is harsh, even appalling, but the film is composed in a key of improbable exuberance.
He is very much the eye of the storm, though: Around him are people who make woeful decisions, and pay the price for them. In a roundabout way, movies such as The Florida Project clarify that poverty is mostly the predictable outcome of various types of unwise behavior. Halley has to scrounge for essentials, but she has lots of luxuries: tattoos, a smartphone, cigarettes, drugs. When she robs one of her johns, she immediately heads to a tacky souvenir shop to blow some of the money on useless novelty items. She and her Moonee are headed nowhere good. Yet I marveled at their unsentimental resilience. The rich Brazilian woman who is near tears when Moonee crosses paths with her is at the Magic Castle because of a booking snafu: Her husband, whose first language is not English, thought he was reserving a fancy room within the Magic Kingdom, at a Disney-owned resort.
The chasm between a magic castle and a magic kingdom could inspire an essay on the supposed outrage of economic inequality. Yet if you told the grifters and petty criminals of The Florida Project that the pernicious structure of Late Capitalism created the cracks into which they’ve fallen, they’d just scoff and think about how to lift your wallet.