I recenly saw “The Florida Project” for the first time. The film episodically captures the events in the life of six-year-old Moonee over one summer as she lives in a budget motel near Disneyworld with her unemployed mother, mucks around, and wreaks havoc on the residents and the motel manager with her friends.
Despite the lack of actual plot, I found it to be oddly captivating and it had me in tears by the end of it. It was a refreshingly authentic, unbiased and unexpectedly well-acted take on the life of lower-class America, largely portrayed through the eyes of a child. In honor of this excellent film (and because I am a firm believer in the significance of beginnings and endings in media), I thought I’d take a look at the first and the last shot of The Florida Project in order to determine what exactly made the ending so touching. Obviously, spoilers ahead.
As my interpretation will focus on protagonist Moonee and her friends, I will summarise only the events necessary to understand their relationship. The film gives commentary on a whole lot of other interesting aspects and I can only recommend to see the film for yourself.
The film starts off as Moonee and her friends Dicky and Scooty pay a special visit to newly arrived residents at the neighbouring motel: they spit on the newcomer’s car which seems to be an established practice. However, they are caught by the woman who owns the car and have to clean it up. They meet Jancey, the woman’s granddaughter, whom they befriend and take with them on their adventures around the area, which include (amongst others) scrounging money from tourists to buy ice cream, annoying the motel manager, and breaking into abandoned holiday homes. When they set fire to one of said homes and Dicky’s mother finds out, she forbids Dicky from playing with Moonee again. Around the same time, Scooty and his father leave the motel, leaving Jancey as Moonee’s primary friend. Throughout the film, it is also established that Moonee’s mother Haley continuously struggles to pay the weekly rent. Her measures to earn money become increasingly more desperate, which finally prompts a child care service to show up. Moonee is afraid of being separated from her mother, so she runs away from the social workers to find Jancey. Together, they run away from the motel and escape to Disneyworld.
The First Shot
The first shot of the film sees protagonist Moonee and her friend Dicky sitting on the ground, leaning against a purple wall. Both stare around relaxed but disinterested, Moonee’s feet tapping together every now and then. Everything is silent except for the distant sound of cars rushing by and the cawing of seagulls. Then, from the distance of the off screen, we hear a boy call out their names and they turn their heads, excitement spreading on their faces, towards the approaching Scooty.
The shot is static and perfectly captures the perceived passivity of the two children, even as the atmosphere shifts from bored indifference to one of excitement and curiosity. They are merely reacting to their surroundings and they seem a bit lost. This is a stark contrast to the upcoming scene where they will go on to spit on someone’s car and an even stronger contrast to the rest of the film where the children are shown bossing everyone around, randomly insulting people and basically just doing whatever they want. I think this opening shot and its contrast to the rest of the film serves to ground the viewer and remind us that these are after all just children. Foul mouthed, bratty children, but still children after all. Of course, the seemingly peaceful shot is immediately inverted by Scooty’s arrival and his almost battle cry-like declaration “Freshies at the Future!”, which prompts them to run over to the Future Land Motel and just, well, spit on a car. Still children.
The Last Shot
The last shot tracks Moonee and Jancey, hand in hand, as they run through the crowds at Disneyland towards the iconic Magic Kingdom Castle, dodging bystanders. Jancey is clearly the one in charge, being more decisive and guiding Moonee through the crowd. Contrary to the first shot, the two children here do not seem lost at all: they seem to know exactly where they are going. They run towards the Castle, and here the movie ends.
This shot is obviously more active and chaotic than the first one. The sense of chaos is heightened by the shaky camera work. While it is unclear whether this scene actually happens or only takes place in Moonee’s imagination, the feeling of loss of control, which Moonee certainly experiences, is expressed here, not only by the chaos but also through the characters themselves: It’s Jancey who leads the way, she’s the one making the decisions.
A re-occuring motif that is – in my understanding – key to understanding the ending is kingdom. Moonee lives at the Magic Castle Motel which is, quite literally, a magic castle to her: Here, she can do whatever she wants. It often seems like she has more control over the place than the manager Bobby himself. At various times the movie shows her easily escaping from infuriated adults because she just knows her way around the motel so well. She also knows where the important maintenance rooms are and messes with everyone as she switches off the electricity at one point. Bobby is left to deal with the situation and try to limit the damage. And while she is often reproached for her antics, she never gets into any serious trouble for it. The motel is her kingdom and she is the ruler.
Now, I have never been to Florida, so I don’t know if these motels are maybe all really as exceptionally coloured as in the film, but I’m sure that director Sean Baker chose the outstanding purplish colour for a reason.
Purple is a regal colour and is often associated with magic. Moreover, it is a colour many young girls might want their house to be painted in if you’d ask them. Some of the film’s more quiet scenes in which we see Moonee play with fairy dolls and unicorn toys tie into this notion that the motel really is a magic, fantastical kingdom to Moonee. It’s her paradise.
Towards the ending this paradise, her kingdom, is intruded by forces far out of her control: The child-care service threatens to destroy her perfect life. Everything falls apart as she is threatened to be separated from her mother. Her reign over this place is coming to an end, so the only option for her is to escape and oh, escape she does. She runs away to Future (!) Land Motel where Jancey lives. She gives up her leadership and is lead to Disneyworld by Jancey.
This is an interesting shift in the dynamic, considering that Moonee has been the more dominant figure in their friendship throughout the film. Moonee “surrenders” in a way to her friend, trusting that Jancey will make the right decisions and care for her. This is what makes the ending endearing in a rather wicked way: Moonee goes through the emotional turmoil of being separated from her mother and for the first time in the film, she doesn’t come up with a plan to evade a difficult situation. She is out of control.
Jancey’s destination is the Magic Kingdom Castle in Disneyworld, the manifestation of dreams come true for people of all ages. It stands for fantasy, and magic, and harmony, it is a promise of the classic fairy-tale ending. All will be well and they lived happily ever after…. It is a beacon of hope to these two lost children, a last resort, a safe place they can turn to when everything falls apart. It is peak escapism; Jancey wants to take Moonee here because she thinks this is where everything will be all right. It is her attempt to provide comfort for Moonee after Moonee has helped her feel comfortable and at home after moving to Future Land.
The film’s tag line, Find Your Kingdom, parallels this sentiment of hope: Somewhere in the world, there is a place where you are safe. I don’t think that the safe place for Moonee is Disneyworld, I think the safety comes from her friendship with Jancey: After all, in the touching climax of the film, Moonee runs off to seek out Jancey’s help and when she finally finds her, she is unable to detail her current situation. She only knows that she might not every see Jancey again. And Jancey, despite not understanding Moonee’s distress, wants to help, knows she needs to help and she takes care of the situation by seeking out the Magic Kingdom Castle. Jancey’s willingness to help Moonee is more decisive and significant than their going to Disneyworld (which we have no proof of actually happening). I find the ending to be a wonderful testimony to their friendship, especially seeing that when they first met, Moonee literally spat on Jancey. So even though the starting point of their relationship seemed to be hostile and unfavourable, something wonderful still managed to flourish from that point on.
“You know why this is my favorite tree?”
“‘Cause it’s tipped over, and it’s still growing.”Moonee and Jancey
The First and The Last will be a series of essays aiming to examine the opening scene, shot or line of a film, chapter or line of a book, verse of a poem or song, or the first episode of a series and compare it to the last scene, shot, line, chapter, verse or episode in order to highlight character evolution, thematic shifts and plot development.