You may have heard of The Florida Project through TikTok. If you did, you probably saw teenage girls pose effortlessly in front of the famous South Floridian purple motel in technicolor edited videos on the app. The popular sound to the videos combines an indie track with the sarcastic free-spirited voice of Halley, the young mother in the film.
But the A24 film by Sean Baker is so much more than its brightly colored 35mm aesthetics. The story of Halley and her six-year old daughter, Moonee, living in the Magic Castle motel, trying to make ends meet as they fight off impending homelessness just miles away from the most magical place on earth, Walt Disney World, is a heartbreakingly authentic depiction of poverty in the U.S.
When I first saw these Tik Toks of young suburbanites making the trek to the setting of the film to fulfill the indie aesthetic that A24 films are known for, it angered me. It felt like ignorant poverty-core, commodifying the harsh lived experiences of low-income people. When I first watched the film, I couldn’t even get through it all because I found it so sad, why did these tiktokers not have the same reaction?
After sifting through more of these aesthetic 1-minute videos, I realized my anger stemmed from jealousy. My sadness and strange attachment to the film came from the fact that I related so much to the experiences of Moonee and her ragtag group of friends, having grown up impoverished myself. I was envious that the people glorifying the film could do so, when I felt embarrassed to admit that I had any connection to the movie.
I realize now that my reactions and the tik toks demonstrate the genius of Sean Baker. The idolization of the film portrayed through the brightly edited videos is exactly how Moonee viewed her own little world and how Baker intends the audience to see it too. The camera placement, composition, shot size, and bright colors are supposed to make us view Moonee’s world through her innocent eyes, masking a lot of the pain and hardship that actually is occurring all around her.
Sure, Moonee and her mother could never afford actually going to Disney, but Moonee and her friends make do at the abandoned housing development, their own Haunted Mansion from Hollywood studios. Prancing with her friends in the nearby swamp is their own Animal Kingdom.
The film is full of other juxtapositions, showing the complicated relationship between childhood innocence and poverty. When you are a child growing up in poverty, you often don’t realize what you don’t have and you still have the ability to see the world with bright eyes. It reminds me of when I was 3 or 4 years old, sitting in the back of my mom’s old Dodge wildly exclaiming that we were at Disney when I saw a tall slender building in Baltimore City. Or when my sister and I would swing from the wired clothes line in the backyard like Tarzan.
Only when you grow older and look back can you recognize the traumatic events you were forced to suffer through as a kid, no longer with highly saturated editing. Watching Moonee sit lonely in the bathtub, left alone with her toys as rap music blared and her mother was just a room over participating in illicit activities to make ends meet, reminded me of the many times I was surrounded by adults in my life engaging in activities I wasn’t supposed to know about and wouldn’t begin to understand until today. Perhaps this is our little kid brain’s way of protecting us from the world.
Not to say that these tiktokers have little kid brains, but they represent the idyllic world that Moonee sees. However, it is important to note that it is not necessarily the world that Moonee lives. Poverty is something that no child should have to live through, no matter how innocently they are able to view the world. Baker contrasts life at the Magic Castle motel with life at Walt Disney World and its corresponding high-end resorts just miles away, to show the stark wealth inequalities that exist in the U.S. After all, Moonee was facing separation from her mother at the end of the film and the whole time they were fighting the possibility of homelessness as families just down the road enjoyed upscale all you can eat buffets.
Anger was not the right reaction when I saw The Florida Project inspired tiktoks. The creators behind them saw the film just as Baker intended, through the imaginative, innocent eyes of a child. I too feel a sense of nostalgia when I watch the movie, thinking of days when everything around me seemed so simple, the complexity of my situation not yet realized. But I also am reminded of the harsh realities that Moonee and her mother truly faced, many similar to those I am only beginning to unpack for myself today. I hope that others too will recognize the pain that comes along with living through poverty as well as the stark wealth inequalities in the U.S. when they watch The Florida Project.