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Movie Review: The Florida Project
A Candy-Colored Picture of Neglect
Alexus Colbert

In The Florida Project, 6-year-old Moonee is being raised by her mom, Halley, who isn’t the best role model. Though Moonee looks happy and free for a lot of the movie, I ended up thinking she had too much freedom for such a young child.

The movie starts on a hot summer day with Moonee and her friends Scooty and Dicky playing outside the purple motel where they live. The children go off to explore the other brightly painted motels nearby.

From a neighboring balcony, the kids gleefully spit on a car in the parking lot below. The owner yells and tells their parents. The parents don’t all react the same: Dicky’s father won’t let him play with the other two anymore. Halley tells Moonee and Scooty to clean the spit off the car. Despite this being a punishment, they turn cleaning into another game, even getting the angry car owner’s daughter, Jancey, to help them wash the car.

“Let her help,” teases Halley, who is laughing about the whole thing. “They’re just having fun.” Moonee and Scooty don’t take their punishment seriously either. We understand that they do whatever they want.

Moonee, Scooty, and Jancey walk for what seems like miles to an ice cream shop, where Moonee begs for money. Back at the purple motel, they sneak into the power room and shut the electricity off. They yell rude things at a topless woman sunbathing by the pool. That the kids are unsupervised and free is both exhilarating and nerve-wracking. The possibility of danger kept me on edge, even while I laughed at their wildness.

The motel manager Bobby disciplines the kids more than their parents do. Halley brushes off his complaints about Moonee as well as his requests for the rent money.

It becomes clear that Halley can’t hold a regular job. She sells boxes of perfume to tourists at a nicer hotel, with Moonee’s help. “Just buy one for me and my daughter,” she pleads. This made me gloomy despite the bright look and fun of the movie: As a child I too had to watch my mother struggle to make ends meet. If we did have dinner, it was often cereal.

A Scary Coloring Book

One day, Moonee, Scooty, and Jancey run off in search of fun as usual. They stumble on an abandoned apartment complex and start trashing it. The kids throw a toilet out a window, and then set a curtain on fire.

As the children flee, the fire spreads to other apartments, and becomes entertainment for the residents of the purple motel. All three kids look guilty and scared while everyone else cheers and takes pictures of the burning building, as if the fire is the best entertainment they’ve seen in years.

Halley and Scooty’s mother, Ashley, are best friends; Ashley gives Halley and Moonee free breakfast every morning from the restaurant where she works. But when Ashley discovers the truth about the fire, she forbids Scooty from playing with Moonee and cuts ties with Halley.

Without a friend or a free breakfast, things get more desperate for Halley. Back in their motel room, Halley and Moonee put on their bathing suits even though they aren’t going swimming, and Halley has Moonee take pictures of her. Later we figure out Halley is using the pictures to advertise herself as an online prostitute. Her customers come to the hotel room while Moonee sits in the bathtub with curse-filled hip-hop blaring. Moonee washes her doll’s hair the same way her mother washes hers, while Halley is on the other side of the bathroom door trying to make ends meet.

The bright colors in the movie underline that the story is being told from a child’s perspective. It’s like the characters are living inside of a coloring book. With her blue-green hair and tattoos, Halley is as colorful and as childlike as Moonee.

image by A24

Moonee’s childhood was like a candy-colored version of mine. My mother was also a fun parent, and I knew she loved me, but she neglected her kids. We were often left alone in the apartment. I also had freedom, but instead of running wild, I took care of my little sister.

Running Out of Room

Throughout the movie, Halley messes up more and more. When she isn’t prostituting, she can’t pay rent, and she alienates even Bobby the motel manager, who’s on her side. Toward the end of the movie, Halley cleans out their motel room and gives her weed to a neighbor. She fills the refrigerator with food.

Moonee comes home to a group of strangers at her door who are overly friendly to her. She can see but can’t hear her mom.

“Why is my mom upset?” she asks, starting to panic.

Halley is angry and she’s pointing at the clean room and the full fridge. Moonee watches the strangers pull her mother aside for a private conversation.

We soon realize that these strangers are Child Protective Services (CPS). They explain to Halley that there’s security footage of nine men entering and exiting her motel room. They’d seen an ad on a website known for soliciting sexual services, with Halley’s phone number attached. They say that Moonee is going to be taken away while they investigate.

Moonee breaks away and makes a run for it to Jancey’s house. Jancey opens the door to see her friend crying hysterically. Up until this point, Moonee has been so upbeat that it’s devastating when she finally cries. The two of them run to Disney World, which is the first time we realize the run-down motels are just outside the Magic Kingdom. I feel like the movie ends with a bit of hope despite Moonee’s predicament. She is hand in hand with her best friend in the happiest place in the world.

When I was taken away from my mom, I watched my little sister fight and kick the CPS workers furiously as she refused to get in the van. Once we were in the vehicle, I held my wailing sister in my lap, crying silently so she wouldn’t hear me. I wanted her to believe that everything was going to be all right, even though I had no idea what would happen. As I watched my mother fade into the distance, I asked myself, “Why didn’t I grab my sister and run?” I thought of all the stores where we could have hidden. As Moonee ran, I was reminded of that day.

I don’t often see my childhood in movies—or complex parents who are both good and bad. Halley was a fun mother. Yet she invited strange men in to have sex while her daughter was in the bathroom, and a man did indeed walk in while Moonee was in the tub. Halley also left Moonee unsupervised too much. I couldn’t help thinking, what if Moonee hadn’t been able to escape the fire with Scooty and Jancey?

The Florida Project acknowledges that sometimes there are no good choices. Sometimes parents are negligent, and children don’t get to choose if they stay or not. We’re just snatched away without an explanation or the chance to say goodbye.

And not all foster homes are good homes: Foster care was pretty bad for me. I love my mother, but she did neglect us. I still wonder if I’d have been better off with my mom or in care—neither was a good situation.

But sometimes a child is taken out of a bad home and put into a better one. The uncertainty of foster care is what makes this movie so heartbreaking. I hope there is a part two to The Florida Project so we can see where Moonee ends up next.

You can watch the movie on iTunes, Amazon, and other streaming services.

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