[Warning: This story contains spoilers for The Florida Project.]
The Florida Project ends at, arguably, the most bittersweet place on Earth.
The critically lauded A24 movie — directed by Tangerine helmer Sean Baker — centers on an impoverished 6-year-old girl and her friends, all of whom live in budget motels on the stretch of highway outside Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. At the end of the summer, Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) is set to be taken away by child protective services after her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is flagged for the solicitation of prostitution — a final straw, as the film showed her trying to make ends meet by getting free food and selling wholesale perfume bottles to sympathetic tourists.
When Moonee suddenly understands that she’ll have to be separated from her mother, she runs away to the neighboring motel to say goodbye to her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto). With Moonee sobbing in the doorway and barely able to speak through her tears, Jancey then grabs Moonee’s hand for a getaway. The final scene — captured with a noticeably hyperactive finish — follows the two girls as they run into Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, standing just in front of the amusement park’s actual magic castle.
“If the ending feels abrupt, it’s also tender in that it sends Moonee running to Jancey for support,” reads The Hollywood Reporter’s review. “Baker captures their possibly imaginary flight together to a magical destination via a brief burst of guerilla-style filming. And that stylistic switch is as much a part of the director’s content-dictated aesthetic as the limpid compositions and singing colors that infuse this movie about low-rent lives with such visual richness.”
So how did Baker manage to shoot inside the happiest place on Earth? “Very clandestinely,” he tells THR. “It’s not against the law, it’s just against the rules, and sometimes you have to break rules to make a film.”
Baker — who first learned of these real-life families in 2011 from co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch, who spotted them while visiting his mother in the Orlando area — drew from his Tangerine techniques for The Florida Project’s final frames. At the end of the summer 2016 shoot, he headed to Disney World with Bergoch, cinematographer Alexis Zabe, acting coach Samantha Quan, the two children and their guardians. “You can’t even call what we had a crew,” laughs Baker. “We were like a family group taking a vacation.”
The scene has an elevated finish from the rest of the movie (shot in 35mm film) because it’s captured on an iPhone for “obvious logistical purposes” and specifically for that device’s inherent effect. “The iPhone always has a different look from model to model — Tangerine is quite smooth, but that was the 5s,” Baker explains. “I was using the iPhone 6s Plus for The Florida Project, and it has what’s called a rolling shutter, and it gave it this hyperactivity and a very different, jarring feel, and we liked that. We could have shot it on a 5s and made it more smooth, but we actually wanted to the audience to know that we were jumping from 35mm to another medium.”
After secretly filming inside and outside the Magic Kingdom over a two-day period, the child actors and their families enjoyed the park freely as a makeshift wrap party. “Are you kidding? How can you bring two little children into that park and just have them work and then go home? I’m not evil!” laughs Baker, who instead left to edit the footage. “Even though we shot the rest of the film out of order, there was something really meaningful about shooting that as the last shot, and knowing that we could then celebrate by allowing the kids to go on rides and have some ice cream — their own ice cream!”
The ending of the movie — which first debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and expands its release Friday — has divided audiences, a reaction Baker really didn’t expect. “It’s left up to interpretation but it’s not supposed to be literal, it’s supposed to be a moment in which we’re putting the audience in the headspace of a child,” he clarifies. “We’ve been watching Moonee use her imagination and wonderment throughout the entire film to make the best of the situation she’s in — she can’t go to the Animal Kingdom, so she goes to the “safari” behind the motel and looks at cows, she goes to the abandoned condos because she can’t go to the Haunted Mansion. And in the end, with this inevitable drama, this is me saying to the audience, ‘If you want a happy ending, you’re gonna have to go to that headspace of a kid because, here, that’s the only way to achieve it.”
Additionally, Baker says the movie was also never intended to explore what happens to Moonee and her mother beyond the Magic Castle: “It was always supposed to be a slice-of-life feature, where we spend a summer vacation with these kids, and having the audience be one of them. The summer was over for me, at the end.”
The final shots are not intended to blame Disney in any way. They’re intended to be uplifting like the rest of the movie, which Baker calls a present-day version of Our Gang and The Little Rascals. “They’re set against the Great Depression and those kids were living in poverty, but they focused on the joy and heart and humor of being a child, and we wanted to do the same thing,” he explains. “We’re living in such politically heated times and audiences might think that [with this movie] they’ll spend $15 to just be inundated with statistics and heartache and tragedy. We understand that cinema is still an entertainment medium and audiences want to step into that movie theater to escape for two hours. So we wanted to make audiences laugh, have fun with these kids and spend the summer with them, but also use this platform to shed a light on what I think is a very important topic.
“Housing is a fundamental human right, and I think the first step toward change is awareness, so if we can get more people to be aware of this national situation,” Baker continues. “I hope this movie inspires people to get involved —donation, education, support, advocacy. … Audiences are asking what [the ending] means, and that’s important because it has people discussing the ending, which means they’re actually discussing the topic.”