“The Florida Project” and questions of control

I had the opportunity to catch the new movie The Florida Project this week, without any background on how it was made or what it is about. That’s my preferred context for seeing movies, but it does sometimes lead to my feeling a bit adrift in the theater, or—in this case—stressed that something catastrophic was about to go down. Still, I feel like I end up with a better idea of what the movie is actually about if I don’t know the plot going into it. Here’s the trailer, if you want a sense of it.

That was certainly the case with The Florida Project, which has attracted nearly universally positive reviews from critics (and some confusion from audiences about the ending). Just about every review I’ve read since seeing the movie describes is as “empathetic,” which is spot on, but none really dive into what the audience is feeling empathy for. This post lays out my explanation, and to do so includes some very minor spoilers. I don’t really think this movie can be “spoiled,” but skip this post if you want to.

To my mind, what the movie does a great job of showing is how people seek spaces where they can be autonomous and in control. It shows children exploring and imagining, but (most importantly) testing out their agency. At the same time, it shows adults, living precarious existences, staking out small pieces of space where they are in charge.

The building manager Bobby is an obvious example, and his arguments with tenants can almost always be framed in this light: whether he’s enforcing the pool rules, confronting unwelcome strangers, or (most tellingly) moving tenants around to prevent them from establishing residency, he is exerting control over his designated space and limiting the autonomy of the people in it. In that last example, too, he alludes to the fact that he’s an agent of another level of power, specifically pointing at the surveillance cameras to explain how his hands are tied.

Halley’s actions in this area are even more illuminating. You can see it best when she gets into conflict with her best friend Ashley. Though Halley doesn’t even know the basis of their argument, she takes it out on her friend by finding a space where Ashley has no autonomy—her workplace—and exercises arbitrary control over her. From that perspective, it’s only a matter of degree when their dispute escalates to violence, and then when Ashley (it’s implied) calls for an intervention by the state.

In that penultimate scene, where Halley is arguing with DCF agents, she makes this unspoken theme somewhat explicit, saying that they’re on her “property.” Throughout the film there are a lot of reasons to think that unit 323 isn’t really Halley’s “property,” but in that moment she reaches for that language to express that she is in control.

The final scene takes that declaration and escalates it to a sort of surreal and metaphorical place. Echoing the film’s tagline (“Find your kingdom”), Moonee and her friend run to a place that feels like their kingdom, where they are the kings. It’s a bit jarring in a film that’s seemed so grounded and “real” to get such a visual metaphor in the closing moments, but it works (and at the same time drives home the juxtaposition between poverty and expensive fantasy that runs under the whole story).

Maybe most movies could be described in these terms—as Octavia Butler said, “all struggles are, essentially, power struggles.” But I think it brings a lot to The Florida Project in particular to think of areas of control and autonomy. The characters shown in the movie are living precarious existences, and seek that kind of control where they can get it. One message from the film is that, where these kinds of spaces aren’t really available, people will find a way to exert control nonetheless. The empathy in this movie is showing the decisions of people who have been rendered powerless in society.

Policies that perpetuate wealth inequality or pervasive surveillance make communities feel that powerlessness. When people talk about those communities “voting against their interests,” it’s worth considering that interest in exercising some kind of control.