After watching The Florida Project last weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings. The film’s final scene left me almost suspended in the story, unable to fully grasp all its possible meanings as I watched the credits roll. I couldn’t shake the final frames that portrayed fleeting moments in the characters’ lives: a hopeful fantasy merged with a painful reality. It's an ending you can craft to fit your own interpretation of the film, a sort of perfectly ambiguous finale that plays like a dream (or not), depending on your point of view.
The story centers on a single mom and her six-year-old daughter, Moonee, who live in the shadows of Disney World and in the margins of society. A bright purple motel dubbed the Magic Castle, where they live in a single room, forms the backdrop for their daily struggles to find viable sources of food, shelter, and clothing. They eek out an existence on poverty’s edge, relying on each other’s ingenuity while thwarted by their own frailties and impossible odds.
Moonee’s mom makes plenty of questionable choices that make her character hard to like, but her predicament is easy enough to understand. We’re reeled into her hardships without a lot of judgment. We get her. Moonee is a bit of a revelation. She and her buddies manage to retain the playfulness of youth with an imagination that floats above the adults around them, whether licking ice cream cones, playing hide and seek, or vandalizing private property. It all seems strangely of a piece.
So much seems familiar — the Magic Kingdom fireworks at night; the large green road signs directing traffic to Seven Dwarfs Lane; the sherbet-colored condos that sit perennially unoccupied. The closeness to Disney’s fabricated Main Street only underscores how the American dream seems desperately out of reach for Moonee and her mom.
Written and directed by Sean Baker (Tangerine), the film’s ending has sparked a lot of discussion (Spoiler alert from here!). Shot on an iPhone, the final sequence feels grittier and more animated than the rest of the film, which was shot in smooth 35mm. The pacing is faster; the soundtrack bursts with music for the first time in the film. The characters move and act differently. The final moments nearly force the audience to take notice. We know something extraordinary is happening, but we’re not quite sure what.
If you only saw a clip of the film’s ending out of context, it may seem like a breathless race through Disney World by a couple of kids on a fun getaway. But in the context of the film, it’s something quite different. It plays like a desperate rush into the heart of capitalism, searching for a happy ending that we know to be elusive.
Imagine what you will. Disney has never seemed more hollow and out of touch. While this symbol of commercialism delivers the Magic Kingdom as a fantasy escape, Moonee can’t live in that world any more than she can continue to live in the cheap motel she calls home. What she doesn’t know is that it’s not even worth aspiring to. Flights of fancy come to an end eventually, even expensive, glittery ones.
These days, it’s the end to our great America project that I can’t stop thinking about. Like so many Americans, I just want our divisive storyline to come to a conclusion. But when a White House attacks its own country’s leaders and institutions, what comes next? Exactly what is happening? It feels as painful and ambiguous as any tipping point can be. There's no script for this.
When this era comes to an end (and it will), I wonder if it will be an ending we can all agree on, in a place that feels real. Or will the context we’ve constructed for ourselves make us interpret the result of this troubled time in different, incompatible ways. That’s the scariest thought — that the deep fissures in our society will stay with us for decades, long after President Trump leaves office.
Trump declared a new American moment in his State of the Union address, but I see it differently; I see a renewed America project. We are still a young country, struggling to find our way, Like the weary, restless characters in The Florida Project, we just want to get by and get along. The first step may be to decide exactly what we are running from, or to.
Right now, my wants are simple. I want to be able to talk with my friends and neighbors about why it’s important to question a president’s actions as possible obstruction of justice; any president. I want to be able to explore the question of constitutional crisis without being called a Trump hater. I want to call out the mean-spirited, distorted rhetoric that we’ve all started to take for granted as a part of our public discourse.
We may only be able to recognize the end of this era when we look back. But there is much we can do now to construct how we want the ending to play out. How can we escape the mess we're in and live as respectful Americans together? What does that look like? Let's lay the groundwork for that now. Cue the music. It's time.