The hotel at the centre of the Florida Project (2017) is occupied, for the most part, by precarious renters, forced to move out once a month so they aren’t deemed permanent tenants. Despite their transience, the occupants make these rooms their own. When our heroes, Halley and her daughter Moonee, pop by their neighbour’s flat they play at being awestruck. Halley comments on the style: ‘This is fancy! You some interior decorator or shit?’ But part of the brilliance of director Sean Baker’s film is that it denies the private sphere, and understands these homes as more than the extension of personality: they are places of work, paid and unpaid, legal and illegal; a network of mutual support; and a site of danger, play, and struggle.
The majority of The Florida Project takes place in the hotel, and there’s a lot to say about how Baker treats this space. It’s one of the most exciting recent films in its portrayal of people and how they interact with their built environment. Baker has applied the walking approach to the city, which he developed on Tangerine (2015), to a hotel, and he’s imbued this building with the same sprawling possibility as Los Angeles. The post-crash housing crisis crops up when the children burn an abandoned complex to the ground. The crowds gather to watch the flames, cheering. Through an incredible tracking shot, we see the kids running down the corridors, enjoying their freedom, laying claim to their space. There are a few moments when we see the hotel inhabitants as a potential collective, as a body capable of making demands. The electricity trips (the kids’ work) and Baker’s camera retreats to see dozens of occupants coming out of their houses to berate Bobby, the hotel manager.
There are two central adult relationships. Bobby’s strained paternal bond with Halley, and Halley’s friendship with her neighbour, Ashley. The violence of this latter relationship is disturbing and mundane. One retracts their son from the other’s life. In response the other humiliates her at work. So then she’s humiliated for her sex work. This leads to punches. Each knows that what the other values most is their freedom. They know that revelling in those places where their autonomy is compromised – the workplace – is the cruellest attack.
Mother and daughter, grifting and chancing, quest for luxury. They go to country clubs selling perfume. When they get $400 by selling a stolen Disney pass they go on a shopping-spree, buying impulsively – ‘cotton balls? Okay!’ They eat at five-star hotels and give fake room numbers. ‘I love this’, the daughter states simply, as we watch her consume ice cream, waffles, bacon. We stay with her face enjoying the food for a few minutes. Then there is the chimera of Disneyland, which hangs over the film, and which the kids escape to in the last scene. The final moments – a shift to fantasy – feel forced, but by this point the film has accrued so much good-will that we forgive quickly. Disney represents more than exploitation and capital; it’s the splendour that Halley and Moonee pursue.