There is no greater innocent protagonist than that of the child in film. Infants have always been the best way to make an audience side with your main characters, it’s a tool that’s been used since Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid back in 1921. Although some films struggle in their ability to delve deep into a child’s mind and into the morals of their decisions, when it’s done right it’s hard to miss. I don’t think there’s any film within the last decade that gets it right as much as Sean Baker’s The Florida Project.
The film is centred on a mother and daughter relationship between six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and single mother Haley (Bria Vinaite) living in the run-down motel ‘Magic Castle Inn & Suites’. The motel is situated on Route 192 in the U.S, a road also known as the famous strip of Florida, the ‘Sunshine State’. Not only this but ‘Magic Castle’ is only 15 minutes away from ‘Magic Kingdom’ in Walt Disney World, the supposed place where “dreams come true.” Moonee’s living situation differs greatly from Disney tourists, however; her and Haley are part of the hidden homeless in America: people unidentified by official statistics. It may be clear to the audience, and to Haley, the circumstances that our main characters are keeping in, but the various sets of events that we encounter interpret an entirely new meaning through Moonee’s eyes.
The way in which the camera is set up eludes to the fact that Moonee sees the world much brighter than it really is. Every building is splashed with colour and towers over the frame, looking like a limitless playground to our six-year-old lead. ‘Magic Castle’s’ purple-walled hallways are Moonee’s own Cinderella castle providing never ending moments of fun for her and her friends. Most conversations are shot similar to Tom & Jerry, in that adult’s heads are usually cut off by the frame, as the camera settles to see the world at Moonee’s height. Moonee sees everything as an opportunity to explore and her wide-eyed optimism juxtaposes perfectly with our other protagonist Haley.
Haley is by no means a responsible adult; she has to provide for herself and her daughter but it is clear she is inexperienced and there is much left unexplained as to why she’s been thrown into this predicament. But Haley’s view of the world is not filled with hope and potential like Moonee’s, she has a realistic approach to it and, like the audience, she is aware of what is happening when the final moments of the film come into fruition.
Moonee and Haley have arrived back at the motel after dining and dashing at a hotel’s buffet breakfast. As they walk back to their accommodation they are given the first warning of trouble with a police car parked outside the lobby. Moonee is unaware, keeping her head down whilst Haley sees it and appears to shrug it off, knowing they’re waiting for her. Adults continue to be cut out of the frame and when Moonee is greeted by social workers and police officers, all the adults blend together so it is unclear which stranger is which. These social workers appear to distract Moonee’s attention whilst the officers question Haley in soliciting within the ‘Magic Castle’ property as well as assaulting another resident. “Prostitution” and other words are thrown around within Moonee’s vicinity, trying to tear down and destroy this wall of innocence that every human child is given at birth. Although Moonee’s wall is still standing, this incident of being separated from her mother appears to be the traumatic event to finally break it.
Moonee and Haley never share a single frame in the film after this moment, instead sharing similar sides of the frame as social services separately inform both that they’re being separated. They no longer share a bond but instead represent a cycle, Moonee starts to become more aware of her surroundings and, with her optimism fading out, she grasps one last chance of saving this by reconciling with her best friend, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Moonee finally breaks down, crying and begging Jancey to help her, unable to face the consequences that fate has thrown at her within this short span of time.
This is where the final scene of the film finally decides what will happen to Moonee’s innocence. Jancey grabs Moonee and they run away together, they run an approximate nine miles (if you want to get technical) to Magic Kingdom. They barricade through security guards, ticket gates and other tourists to end up in the centre of where every child’s innocence is at its peak, in the escapist fantasy of Walt Disney World. It’s a completely different scenario to what Moonee has been used to, signified by director Sean Baker by filming this final sequence on an iPhone in contrast to the film’s previous use of 35mm. The ending itself is left up to debate: many can claim that is literal in that Moonee has run away from growing up and is holding on to her innocence for as long as she can, whilst, due to the impossibility of these events happening, it can also be perceived as a dream sequence for Moonee – that in a perfect world, this six-year-old would be showered with the wonder that Walt Disney World provides, that Moonee can ignore ‘adult problems’ and continue to live through her childhood carefree.
The open-ended conclusion is the perfect way for Sean Baker to end his social-realist piece, that although the audience may be unaware of this, they have the privilege of choosing what they believe is really happening to Moonee. Moonee didn’t choose her social class, demographic or family. The only thing she can control is her imagination, which runs solely through her childlike innocence. This may be where the magic of the film truly lies: that a six-year-old can be placed in one of the worst living conditions in America and still end up at Walt Disney World, either through her guiltless eyes or opportunistic mind.