The Florida Project: On wealth inequality, childhood and the myth of the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’


‘The Florida Project’ is a film filled with sprawling images of pastel buildings, and drenched in a warmth so intense that it almost feels sickly. Such setting is used to depict an American summer that leads to the devastation of lives and the denial of a fair childhood, rather than one that allows children to enjoy their youth; to live out their early days in the safety of a permanent home, and in the happiness of the sun. Set at an outstandingly purple motel on the fringes of Disney World, ‘The Florida Project’ tells the story of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old girl spending a long, languorous summer break wreaking havoc with her friends. In her makeshift castle, Moonee makes herself queen and roams around the land as if it is hers alone, seemingly unbothered by the lack of luxury that she grows up amongst. While other children spend Floridian summers in the company of Mickey Mouse and his fellow cartoon pals, Moonee spends hers helping her mother to sell perfumes to unwitting tourists. What is on display in ‘The Florida Project’ is the same kind of haunting, social realism that is found in Andrea Arnold’s ‘American Honey’. Neither film makes any kind of attempt to hide the striking poverty that ravages modern America, nor does either attempt to romanticise it. Moonee may be able to run around freely in the swampy surroundings of Disney’s outskirts, but she also has to run to the diner at which a friend’s mother works, in order to secure a dinner for the evening. An ice cream, for example, is only guaranteed if she tells strangers that she needs it for her asthma. Meanwhile, on the other side of a fence, thousands upon thousands of kids are given the greatest time of their young lives.

Like ‘American Honey’, what ‘The Florida Project’ manages to do so well is capture the small joys that come with life on the poverty line. At one point in the film, Moonee’s mother, Hallee (Bria Vinaite), is able to afford to take the two of them on a shopping spree at a dollar store. Here, the two of them indulge in buying bracelets for Moonee’s ragtag group of friends, and relish in decorating one another in tinsel. It is a moment of pure elation, and is made poignant by its simplicity. This is a mother and daughter engaging in a shopping trip. It is an act considered trivial by most. Yet, as a result of both Sean Baker’s sublime direction and the fantastic performances given by Prince and Vinaite, it is enough to bring the audience to tears. So rare is this escape from hardship for the two, that it appears far more significant than a lifetime of visits to Disney’s Magical Kingdom. Such happiness, however, cannot last in Moonee’s environment. Rather, like Star’s brief flirtation with comfort and content in ‘American Honey’, Moonee’s moments of joy are fleeting. Eventually, both she and Hallee must return to reality; to a world in which financial freedom is uncommon and poverty is rife.

‘The Florida Project’ ends not on a sense of hope, but on a direct critique of Disney World’s claim to be ‘the Happiest Place on Earth’. As Moonee and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) – a friend at another motel on the strip – race towards Cinderella’s castle, bursting with dreams, we are aware that something tragic is taking place at the same time. While other families pace around the park, free of worry, Moonee and Jancey must escape to a kingdom in order to get away from the heartache that they face as victims of the myth of the American dream. As capitalism reigns supreme at the heart of Disney World, Jancey and Moonee, and countless other children like them, suffer at the hands of the system. Their final run, then, from the systemic rules that hold them hostage, and into the centre of the wealth inequality that divides Florida, leaves us devastated. It reminds us that, in a society that ignores its poor and leaves children to rely on donations from foodbanks, there is no true escape from the cruelty of class split. There is only a temporary taste of the other side, as further hardship awaits the most vulnerable of us all.


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