The following contains spoilers for THE FLORIDA PROJECT

“Have faith in your dreams and someday

Your rainbow will come smiling through

No matter how your heart is grieving

If you keep on believing

The dream that you wish will come true.”

What is there to say about Florida? Depending on who you ask, it’s the sunshine state or America’s wang. It’s the scenic paradise of America’s mainland, or it’s the swampy hellscape filled with insane Florida Man stories. The strange paradox of Florida is not dissimilar to America as a whole: a country that is equal parts promising and discouraging.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT takes place at a Florida motel that exists in the shadow of Disney World. The word “Disneyland” is never directly spoken, but the shadow of the mouse lingers over the film. The Magic Kingdom is the epicenter of a facade that radiates to the surrounding areas.

Director Sean Baker’s vision of Florida is filled with garish pastels juxtaposed with poverty. It’s a cotton candy-colored study of America’s economic disparity. Through the eyes of the film’s young protagonist Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Baker guides the audience through the American lie in microcosm.

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In Lindsay Ellis’ video essay on the film SAVING MR. BANKS, she discusses the way Disney’s revisionist history is ingrained into its theme park experience.

“People just want to take the park’s attractions at face value without thinking about the implications of this revised history and then go home.”

Much of Disneyland is stereotypical, sanitized, and just plain inaccurate. All of this helps these ideas to fit into the pat, ideal Disney package. America itself grapples with similar historical revisionism. We are in the midst of a cultural moment where we are finally questioning just why we’ve spent so much time fetishizing the traitorous actions of Confederate generals (hint: its racism).

It’s easier to believe that America has always been the shining city on the proverbial hill, like castles in a fairytale, than to confront the ugliness of the world. It’s that ugliness that Moonee lives blissfully a few steps removed from. THE FLORIDA PROJECT takes place during the height of the summer.

Moonee, free from the burden of school, spends her childhood days darting from adventure to adventure. Her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) join her as they journey across parking lots, open fields, and abandoned condos in search of adventure.

Moonee and her friends live out their own version of a fairytale life. They seek out the unknown and the mysterious, often free from consequences of adults. However, they live unaware of the darkness on the outskirts of their lives.

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Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) is barely hanging on. Throughout the film, she struggles to get by and support her daughter. Her main source of income comes from selling perfume to tourists outside of hotels. Eventually, she turns to prostitution as things get more desperate. It’s easy to judge Halley as a bad mother, but everything she does is out of love of her daughter.

She’s a single mother, and while it’s never explained why, it’s not unlikely that Moonee’s father simply left them behind one day. It’s in Halley’s story that we see the strongest repudiation of the Disney fairytale ethos. Her constant struggle to provide for her daughter and her efforts to keep her life afloat harken back to many of the Disney archetypes.

She works like Cinderella, dreams like Snow White, but is still a person who lives in reality. Halley is a tattooed Disney princess who is trapped in a run-down castle tower. The only monster keeping her locked away is the crushing weight of capitalism.

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The Magic Kingdom is the hotel at the center of the film. The name is an attempt to cash in on the Disney Magic. A desperate grab at some of the fairy dust downwind of Disneyland. The castle’s keeper is the kindly, perpetually flummoxed Bobby (Willem Dafoe). He wants to keep his modest motel functioning, but he also thrives on the happiness of its guests.

Bobby sees himself as the guardian of the motel. He chases away a potential child predator. When he tries to discipline Moonee or advise Halley, he comes across as a well-meaning Dad rather than a detached building manager. He wants his make own slice of the happiest place on Earth, even in the face of so much unhappiness.

He desperately tries to protect Halley and Moonee. Bobby chases away a potential child predator from the kids gathered in the motel’s yard. When Halley is accused of stealing by one of her “clients,” Bobby threatens to reveal to the man’s wife that he was soliciting her for sex. For all of his work, Bobby’s fantasy is also sullied by the film’s end.

Halley is reported to child services, once again proving there can be no happy endings, even in the Happiest Place on Earth. Both Bobby and Halley are powerless against the forces of the law. When the social workers tell Moonee they will have to take her from her mother, she runs away. Bobby watches her run off, paralyzed and powerless. All Halley can do is shout and rage against the indifferent forces that have trapped her and her daughter for years.

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Moonee runs from the Magic Castle to the nearby hotel where Jancey lives. She tells Jancey this could be the last time she ever sees her again. Tears pour from Moonee’s eyes while Jancey stands stunned.

As Moonee Breaks down, Jancey grabs her hand, and they run off. The camera switches to a manic, handheld style, emphasizing the dream-like nature of what is about to occur. As the girls run along the highways of Florida, they pass a wire outline of Mickey’s familiar head, like God’s eye staring down at them. They run through the gates of Disney World with the film’s final shot watching them dash into the distance towards Cinderella’s castle. The film abruptly cuts to credits.

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What are we left to conclude from this ending? First, nothing from those final minutes is real. What else can a child facing this type of horror do but retreat into the world of fantasy? All Jancey could think to do was to run away to Disneyland: the beautiful place where happy endings exist and nothing bad ever happens.

What is perhaps Baker’s most audacious move is ending the film here. We are denied the catharsis of a true ending in exchange for a fallacious happy ending. By giving us this faux happy ending, Baker highlights the sham of the Disney philosophy. That seems like an easy target. We all know Disney movies are just fairy tales. However, THE FLORIDA PROJECT cements us in a place of reality. Baker isn’t trying to expose the lie of Disney, he’s trying to remind us of the truth in reality.

It is only in childhood where we can run and hide from the dreadful realities of the world. Adults don’t have the luxury of fantasy. We must face the monsters of the real world and find our way to a truly happy ending. Not one filled with handsome princes and talking animals, but one that finds us some level of peace.

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