It’s thought that newborn babies are afraid of two things: loud noises and falling. Infants express these fears by reacting with a startle — as they age, their fears age with them, growing more sophisticated as their memories develop. Their reactions become more sophisticated too — once they can remember and recognize something unpleasant, babies anticipate and express fear in ways more complex than an immediate reaction. Fear, once clear cut, becomes a little more muddled, a little harder to pinpoint.
Such is the case with the children in The Florida Project (directed by Sean Baker, out now). At first glance, the tiny heroes — Moonee (the delightful Brooklynn Prince), plus her friends and neighbors — seem thrillingly close to fearless. They enter a room they’re not supposed to go in; they take turns spitting on a parked car until it’s visibly soiled. When the owner of the car notices and expresses her outrage, the kids aren’t shaken — she yells, they yell back, with cheer and flourish. Neither are they deterred by being punished, giggling and joking while wiping the windshield clean.
Moonee and her friends live in a purple-colored discount motel in Orlando, the kind of place a honeymooning couple intent on Disney World is horrified to find themselves mistakenly booked at. A charity van hands out loaves of bread in the parking lot, and in the room Moonee lives in with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), the television seems to be on at all times. It’s summertime, viscerally so — the children pass sticky ice-cream cones back and forth, they bounce their backs off concrete walls and crouch over bugs, and when they move, their thin-soled shoes run across pavement so vividly you can practically feel the warmth.
The children in The Florida Project are on the move a lot, almost demonstrating a strain of child-rearing that encourages parents to give their kids the freedom to explore physical spaces unchaperoned and make their own choices. But what’s missing is the intentionality — the parents of Moonee and her friends aren’t absent for abstract purposes like fostering independence (mothers, really — fathers are not mentioned). These parents are absent to make money to survive, or, as in the case of Jancey’s mother, simply absent.
During one supervision-free afternoon, Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) explore abandoned buildings, encountering adult objects with childlike wonder. Moonee declares one room a party room, where a gathering “with beer!” could happen. Entering another, she pronounces the torn and scattered insulation “ghost poop!” A fireplace gives her a final idea that leads to a particularly final choice, this one having to do with a lighter.
In the next shot, The Florida Project’s children finally outwardly express some fear: Running from the gathering smoke and flames, Moonee cautions her friends to tell no one. A quick-moving fire in an unstable building is just moments behind them — and the kids’ primary fear is how their parents might react. That fear isn’t exactly unfounded, though it doesn’t manifest in the way the children might expect.
When Scooty doesn’t want to join the other motel residents in watching the fire blaze, his mother’s suspicions are raised. She looks right into his eyes and asks if he knows anything about the fire — does he know what could happen to them, if he’s found out? This particular fear is one Scooty isn’t quite conditioned to anticipate, but his mother is: She’s worried about the authorities taking him away from her. This fear has a consequence; Scooty is no longer allowed to play with Moonee, their mothers’ formerly close friendship is dissolved.
The standoff between the mothers comes to a head when Scooty’s mother, Ashley (Mela Murder), says “everyone knows” how Halley’s been making money inside her motel room (as viewers, we can take a reluctant hint when Moonee’s bath is interrupted by a strange man shocked at the child’s presence). It’s this same reason, Halley’s profession, that prompts authorities to eventually question her fitness as a parent. Moonee’s initial reaction to the officials swarming her home isn’t quite fear — it’s confusion, a not-knowing state that at first makes her more suspicious than afraid.
With none of the thrilling freedom of the movie’s earlier moments, Moonee escapes the grown-ups preparing to separate her from her mom, sprinting across the pavement. She knocks on Jancey’s door in tears, unable to get the words out. When the words come, they’re not exacting — fear, once it’s past the infant stage, never is again. Jancey, until now the most timid of Moonee’s friends, squints her eyes with defiance and reacts to Moonee’s fear with immediacy, as if suddenly seeing the world as simply as a baby does. She takes her friend’s hand and the two run once again; this time, chased by something they’re only just learning to fear. Where they end up is quite literally the stuff of fantasy, as recognized by children and adults alike.