This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Melissa Tamminga’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I re-watched The Florida Project with my Film 101 students, and while they all appreciated the film and many adored it, I got a few complaints that there’s “no story,” that the characters “never grow or change.”
I suppose, immersed in my own bubble of being quite happy to accept a cinema verite and/or Italian neorealist-adjacent film, where the profound is in the mundane and where a film does not have to have a strong three-act structure for me to engage with the slice-of-life observational details, I’d kind of forgotten that this kind of naturalism can be a big hurdle for the uninitiated. And that’s ok -- freshman and sophomore students who are not film majors shouldn’t all be expected to immediately embrace films that are wholly unlike anything they’ve seen before.
All that aside, however, I do think it’s interesting to consider this film from a narrative structure perspective: it really isn’t purely a slice-of-life style set of observations. It has some very strong story beats, particularly when we look at the story from Halley’s point of view, rather than Moonee’s.
Here is Halley’s story, with a set-up, rising action, climax, and resolution:
--Halley goes to state services to get help with food and bus passes (she has no car). There, we learn she has job applications in to all the places that are in walking distance of the motel, and she's been rejected by all of them. She needs food and bus passes in order to live and get a job, but the state requires her to get a job in order to get the bus passes and food. Catch-22. No help in sight from the state.
--We learn Halley’s close friend Ashley has been turned down for a promotion -- she would have given Halley a job where she works, she says. Now she can't. At least Ashley can still sneak free food to Halley and Moonee out the back door of the restaurant.
--Halley tries to make her own work by buying and selling wholesale perfume. That works for a while. She is able to pay rent.
--Due to Moonee and her friend Scooty's mischievousness and a fire in the abandoned condos, Ashley refuses to see Halley anymore -- that friendship is cut off. No more free food.
--Halley is caught by hotel security and can't sell perfume anymore -- even some of the perfume she bought to sell is confiscated. Money lost.
--Halley is forced to sell her iPad. She buys the cheapest pizza (cheese, no pepperoni) she can find to feed Moonee. It’s not enough for rent, of course.
--In desperation, Halley offers herself for sex work, and she tries to protect Moonee the best she can by keeping her in the bath while she plays loud music. With sex work, she is able to pay rent a couple of times.
--Halley gets a “bonus” from one customer, as it were, when she steals his Disney World passes (and she uses part of the money to take Moonee on a shopping spree, a joyous trip to the Dollar Store), but this “bonus” leads to an altercation, where Bobby, the hotel manager, finds out Halley is definitely doing sex work (something he only suspected before). He cuts off that option to her by telling her all guests must check in.
--Unable to sell sex anymore, Halley, in further desperation, asks Ashley, who has rejected her, for rent money. Ashley turns her down and taunts Halley for the sex work. A distraught and humiliated Halley beats Ashley up.
--”Someone” reports Halley because of the sex work, and the state (who, we recall, had rejected Halley's previous request for help) comes for a well-check on Moonee.
--Halley, knowing there's no way out, first cleans her room (a hopeful/hopeless gesture towards a future that still includes Moonee) and then takes Moonee on one last spree, a treat of a wealth of food Halley could never afford to buy for her on her own, a buffet at the upscale hotel next to them. It’s a stolen meal, Halley feels Moonee deserves and that the state has withheld. (We don't see Halley eat anything; the food is for Moonee.)
--The police come and charge Halley with solicitation, and the state comes and takes Moonee away.
--Halley has failed; she loses her daughter.
Halley’s story arc is a bit hidden since the film--even down to its child’s-eye-level cinematography point of view--aligns primarily with Moonee. From Moonee’s perspective, life is merely happening. A day to day life, where things don’t build or increase in tension. She exists in and for the moment -- an ice cream cone shared with friends, a condo conflagration, the “hilarious” boobies of a sun-bather, a delicious bit of bread and jam, a safari, a rainbow, a birthday celebration with fireworks. We don't see explicitly -- not in obvious story beats -- what Halley is going through.
But if we think of a "narrative" as a series of obstacles, ever increasing obstacles, that a character must overcome, Halley's arc absolutely follows that. This story, as such, is about a very young, powerless person, without family or state or partner support, trying to provide for her daughter but dealing with an increasingly impossible and desperate situation.
One of the beauties of the film, I think, is it contains both Moonee and Halley -- a child who exists in the pure joy (or terrible grief) of the moment, and an adult who feels, day by day, the increasing pressure to take care of someone she loves but finds she cannot.
And while our last image of Moonee is in a fantastical escape into a childhood dream, the “happiest place on earth,” it’s a very loud, wide-open-mouthed “FUUUUUCKK YOOOOUUU!!!” that is our last glimpse of Halley.
Two characters, two resolutions, beautifully fitting to each.