The Florida Project — the original name for Disney World during its inception combined with “the projects”, an alternative name for subsidised housing. This play on words describes the dichotomy of perspectives shown throughout the film – both the adult and child perspectives. The film documents families living in poverty at a rundown hotel ironically named, “The Magic Castle”. The protagonists – Moonie and her mom, Halley, struggle to pay for their hotel room each day due to Halley’s recklessness as a parent. Oftentimes at the cost of mischief, Moonie finds her own happiness at “The Magic Castle”. The adult and child perspectives throughout the film are in constant battle; tropes of children’s media unravel into troubling subject matter addressing poverty, atypical of the children’s media genre. Baker toys with the fine line between child’s play and child endangerment and through this, breeds a new context to situate films.
Trope #1: Unsupervised Fun
It’s no doubt that the film was inspired by The Little Rascals. Both have similar camera work at child-appropriate heights, both document children having fun amid poverty, and both include parents who are too busy to supervise their children. The Little Rascals, however, showcases the gang having unsupervised fun in a controlled environment. In the episode, “Hide and Shriek”, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and Porky get in trouble by sneaking into a haunted house. The only consequence faced by the gang is being terrified by the fictitious monsters of the attraction. Sure, there is a shot in the haunted house that depicts the gang nearly sawed in half by a spinning blade, but the camera also reveals an amusement park cart to remind the audience that the terrors are part of a safe ride. In The Florida Project, there is a sense of endangerment that accompanies the unsupervised fun. Moonee and her gang burn a house down for fun and vow not to tell any adults. The consequences of fun depicted in The Florida Project are not ephemeral like in children’s media such as The Little Rascals. The unsupervised fun in The Florida Project runs the risk of death.
Trope #2: Children going missing
Broadchurch explores how the death of a child affects a community, Dark is centered around families’ searches for the disappearances of their children — children going missing is becoming a shortcut to tragedy, but Baker uses it to emphasise child neglect. As Moonee wanders of hotel property, the plot does not advance at a rapid pace and characters appear unaffected. Baker ensures that the shock value of this trope is not due to the characters’ shock upon figuring out Moonee is missing, but the audience’s shock upon figuring out no one cares. Moonee sets a house on fire and we are shocked that instead of worrying, Halley asks Moonee to pose for a picture in front of the house set ablaze. Moonee nearly encounters a pedophile on hotel property and instead of her mother coming to the rescue, Bobby, the hotel manager, is unofficially put in charge of caring for Moonee.
Trope #3: Bath Fun
The 2012 Pixar short animated film, Partysaurus Rex, opens with an action-packed sequence of bath time toys fighting at sea, only to cut to a wide shot of a kid playing with toys in a bubble bath. Barney & Friends released an episode on the fun of taking a bath titled, “Good Clean Fun!”. The Florida Project borrows the children’s media trope of “bath fun” and associates it with prostitution. Each time Halley prostitutes herself in the hotel room, the camera remains on Moonie playing with dolls in the bathtub. Moonie may be having fun in the bathtub, but there are cracks in the fun that reveal the situation. Moonie plays to loud rap music that drowns out the activities in the adjacent room and even encounters one of the men her mother is sleeping with when he barges in on her bath time. The camera focuses on Moonie; her reaction to the man is only seen and the “kid’s perspective” visually overshadows these portions of the film. Baker perverts the trope of “bath fun” to uncover the prostitution business of Moonie’s “Magic Kingdom”.
Trope #4: The Moving Experience
“The moving experience” is a recurrent plot line used in children’s media for suspense and sentimentality. The trope begins with a friendship put into jeopardy when one character moves away from another. In a turn of events, the trope ends on a lighter note; it may be discovered that the character will only be gone temporarily. In the Arthur episode titled, “The Faraway Friend”, Arthur finds out that his best friend, Buster, is moving overseas to stay with his dad. Although Arthur struggles with the absence of his best friend, he receives a package of souvenirs from Buster and a letter detailing the fun times he is having with his father. The ending of The Florida Project sends Moonee on a “moving experience” under duress. As the Department of Children and Families busts Halley for child neglect and prepares to take Moonee into foster care, Moonee is forced into “the moving experience”. Instead of following authorities, Moonee runs downstairs to her best friend, Jancey, and begs her to help her escape. While Buster’s moving experience is known ahead of time, under the supervision of a parent, and one he is excited for, Moonee’s is abrupt and forced. Baker warps “the moving experience” and we are confirmed in our beliefs of the child abuse that Moonee faces daily through her mother’s erratic lifestyle. Baker starts with the trope, but strays from its expected light ending when instead of an escape scene, dreamlike iPhone footage of Moonee and Jancey running to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is shown. Given the unlikeliness of the girls reaching Disney World, it is assumed that the trope was broken by the “adult perspective”– Moonee was caught and taken away from her mother.
The Florida Project is like children’s media on steroids; tropes are pushed to their limits and fun has extremely real consequences. The dark humour and intrigue of the film is found in being led to think playful tropes will be followed through, only for Baker to morph them into warning signs. Fortunately, the children in the film truly live at their Magic Castle – where even the most harrowing situations are disguised as play and diegetic sounds of children’s laughter can be heard in the background of any dire situation. It was difficult seeing characters deprived of basic rights, but it was more so difficult seeing a child take off their rose-coloured glasses and understand that their version of “fun” isn’t the majority’s. Baker’s film is only one of several award-winning films that utilise the technique of inverting children’s media tropes to situate a film teetering on the brink of child endangerment and play. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters and Jeremy Comte’s Fauve are more recent examples of films situated in the same context. So come awards season, see how many films upend traditional children’s media tropes and think about toppling tropes within other genres to contextualise your stories.