Sean Baker, 2017
Just a few miles down the highway from Disney World, colorful tourist traps and budget motels line the streets, promising affordable family fun to parents and couples who have just been bled dry by The Mouse. For some people in the Orlando area, these motels are home; their children live in the castle-shaped shadow of the happiest place on earth with no opportunity to experience it for themselves.
Directed by Sean Baker and shot almost entirely on 35mm film, The Florida Project follows Moonee, a six-year-old girl living with her single mom, Halley, in a pastel-hued motel called The Magic Castle. One shot that defines the film sees Moonee and her best friend Jancey running toward the end of a rainbow that’s spread across The Magic Castle, in hopes of finding gold and beating up the leprechaun for keeping it from them.
Moonee and her friends, all of whom live in motels with their low-income families, are largely unaware of the economic reality they live in; they experience what’s essentially a mirror version of Disney World. Jancey lives in a nearby motel called Futureland, and many of the surrounding motels have what are essentially knock-off Disney Park names. The Magic Castle is an obvious reflection of Magic Kingdom, even referenced within the film when a confused and angry couple find out that they have accidentally made reservations there instead of Magic Kingdom. Moonee and her friend Scooty watch in amusement as the motel’s overworked manager and kids’ pseudo-father figure, Bobby, tries to handle the situation.
The film opens with Moonee and her friends causing trouble at the motels, with “Celebration” by Kool and The Gang playing over the sound of their laughter as the opening credits roll against The Magic Castle’s purple walls. As the humid Florida summer rolls on through the film, Moonee, Jancey, and Scooty spend their days largely unsupervised, running through the tourist city, making up games, quoting Spongebob and hip-hop lyrics, and trying to get enough change from strangers to buy an ice cream cone for the trio to share. Early in the summer, their friend Dicky moves away with his family, and a few weeks later, the friend group loses yet another member. Scooty’s mom and Halley’s best friend, Ashley, forbids him from hanging out with Moonee and Jancey after he confesses that while the three of them were playing at abandoned condos near the motels, they started a fire with Scooty’s lighter, which quickly blazed out of control. Moonee and Jancey are never told why they can’t play with Scooty anymore, so they continue on their usual antics, with Halley hitchhiking the three of them to an empty parking lot just outside of Magic Kingdom so they can watch the nightly fireworks display for Jancey’s birthday. When Halley tells Jancey “That’s for you!” as the elaborate fireworks dazzle in the sky, Moonee and Jancey have no reason not to believe her; they watch in awe.
While Moonee and her friends play the summer away, the adults in their lives continue to deal with personal and economic struggles. Halley is unable to find work due to her past criminal record, which affects her ability to receive government aid for herself and Moonee. She resorts to selling knock off perfumes, with Moonee in tow, in the parking lots of higher-end hotels. This endeavor is successful, until one of the hotels calls security on her, and her stock is confiscated. Desperate to keep herself and Moonee from homelessness, Halley turns to sex work, keeping Moonee in the bathroom; unaware and preoccupied with bath toys, the radio blaring the latest hip-hop tracks.
Through the film, Halley tries to shield Moonee from the reality of the financial insecurity they face. She uses the money she earns to buy Moonee toys and pay for (or charge to someone else’s account) big breakfast meals, encouraging Moonee to order whatever she wants. The facade fades as Halley informs Moonee she had to sell their iPad for cash and can’t afford pepperoni on the pizza they have for dinner one night. Still, Moonee accepts this. It’s the only way of life she and her friends know. This notion of her reality as normal comes crashing down with the Department of Children and Family’s involvement, particularly in their last visit to The Magic Castle. Social workers want to temporarily rehouse Moonee with a foster family while they investigate Halley’s sex work and determine whether or not she is an unfit mother. As Halley angrily packs a bag for Moonee, the social workers tell her that she’s going on a fun trip. When they allow Moonee to say goodbye to Scooty, he reveals that she’s actually being sent to live with another family. She quickly becomes aware that the only family dynamic she’s ever known is threatened, and, in an angry panic, she flees The Magic Castle.
The final scene of The Florida Project, during which Brooklynn Price delivers one of the most moving performances by a child actor in cinema, shows Moonee banging on the motel room door at Futureland, desperate to give what she believes to be her final goodbye to Jancey. Moonee tearfully tells Jancey, “You’re my best friend and this may be the only time I’m going to see you again. I can’t say it,” sobbing for several more moments before choking out, “Bye.” Jancey glances back into the motel room, where her grandma is preoccupied with cleaning, and grabs Moonee’s hand. The two girls run from Futureland all the way to Magic Kingdom, the real deal, where they disappear through the crowd of tourists into Cinderella’s castle, away from the grim reality that awaits them outside the park.