Tocqueville wouldn’t have been surprised. Long before John Hughes or Gerwig brought the suburban high school experience to the big screen, the Frenchman observed:
I have often been surprised and almost frightened by the singular skill and pleasing audacity with which young American girls marshal thoughts and words while deftly negotiating the shoals of sprightly conversation. A philosopher might well stumble a hundred times along the narrow path these girls travel without incident or difficulty.
Christine is nothing if not audacious. She’s skilled in the quick retort and not shy about telling off her Catholic school teachers. There’s no philosophical method to her conversation, other than being aggressively endearing. In this sense, Christine exhibits the restless independence Tocqueville associates with American Protestants. Yes, Christine attends a parochial school, but this has more to do with the fact that her brother supposedly witnessed a stabbing at the public high, rather than any particular family religiosity. For Lady Bird, the habits of liberty surely trump religious beliefs.
Christine speaks her mind and does what she pleases. She delightfully illustrates Tocqueville’s democratic girl, shaped by “youthful impatience, ill-controlled desires, changing customs, frequently uncertain or impotent public opinion, weak paternal authority, and challenges to marital domination.” Here Tocqueville’s thoughts on the forgiving democratic father seem especially apt: Christine cajoles her dad into filling out her college financial aid forms behind her mother’s back.
Lady Bird generally hints that Christine will turn out alright. She spends much of her time bucking her mother’s sense of responsibility in favor of an irreverent liberty, but maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps Christine will manage to evade Tocqueville’s trap. It’s hard to imagine she won’t preserve her sprightliness and wit as she gets older.
But while Lady Bird concludes with Christine on the cusp of adulthood, the six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) still has a lot of childhood in front of her. This makes The Florida Project more poignant but also more troubling. The movie, directed by Sean Baker, takes place on the outskirts of Orlando, in a seedy motel called the Magic Castle. Moonee’s mom (Bria Vinaite) is an out-of-work stripper who does little in the way of parenting. But just because Moonee has never been to Disney World doesn’t mean she doesn’t create her own fun.
From Moonee’s perspective, the thoroughfare, littered with diners and discount chains, teems with adventure. Baker convinces us that, in the eyes of a first grader, a motel full of vacant rooms and junkies might be a marvelous place to play hide-and-seek. Somehow Baker makes overgrown parking lots look like The Jungle Book. The film captures what it’s like to move as a kid. Some of the most gorgeous scenes consist in little more than watching Moonee and her sidekicks swing their arms excessively as they cross the street. They bob their heads against the wall for no reason and enthusiastically run when anyone above the age of ten would walk. Moonee is the master of mischievous pleasures: she delights in watching her ice-cream cone drip on the lobby floor, spying on topless sunbathers, and spitting on car windshields. When an angry motel neighbor insists Moonee clean up her mess, Moonee delights in that too. She sprays the Windex bottle with squeals of laughter.
The pathos of the film is that Moonee is being neglected but doesn’t quite know it yet. For her, relying on stolen meals from the local Waffle House means another chance to hike down the highway with her friends. Helping her mother assemble lewd photos to post on the internet is a game of “swimsuit selfies.”
Moonee is energetic and naughty, and there’s no question that her virtue rests, in Tocqueville’s words, “more on the free effort of her will than on shaky or ruined safeguards.” The problem for Moonee, though, is that no amount of moxie can protect a six-year-old from danger. We needn’t endorse Tocqueville’s portrait of Puritan matrimony to think Moonee deserves better parenting.
Moonee’s mother, Halley, is clearly struggling with her own transition to adulthood. She loves Moonee, but treats her more as an entertaining younger sister than a daughter. Halley looks to be in her early twenties, and we don’t learn any details about Moonee’s father. But Halley’s combination of violence, chest tattoos and contempt for authority suggest her own youth has not been kind to her. Her habit of talking to Moonee as something of an equal—with all of the unfiltered frustration and profanity that implies—gives Moonee an oversized confidence. Moonee moves through the adult world with a sense of equal standing.
Bobby, the motel manager (William Dafoe) does his best to look after the Magic Castle kids. But he has washing machines to fix, walls to paint and overdue rent to collect from the kids’ parents. He puts in long hours, as both a handyman and an unofficial social worker. Yet there’s a mounting anxiety as we realize that Bobby can only protect Moonee for the next few hours—certainly not for the coming weeks or years.
Moonee and her friends forge their own form of childish community, but this is unlikely to outlast the summer. Already she’s panhandling and setting fires, and Moonee’s behavior is bound to become more destructive. Late in the film, when a child services officer talks to Moonee like a normal six-year-old, we feel the sting of her condescension. Moonee is not just insulted but confused. Gentleness, for a girl who’s already seen as much callousness as Moonee has, signals that something’s not right.
In the absence of adult responsibility, Moonee’s unchaperoned liberty leaves her exposed to the darker side of democratic society. Fistfights, malnutrition and sex crimes are all facts of life at the motel where she lives. Yet this is a society where Moonee feels, at least for a time, a sense of equality.
As director, Baker’s tone isn’t judgmental, but neither is it especially forgiving. His film is one of dogged honesty about the adults and children who find themselves on the margins of American mores.
Lady Bird and The Florida Project both capture the pain and precocity of American girlhood. It seems safe to say neither Christine and Moonee will become the kind of housewife Tocqueville imagined in the nineteenth century. But that doesn’t mean growing up has gotten any easier.