I am always amazed at how many people flock daily to Disneyland, upward of 18 million annually, either to escape from their everyday lives or to experience the magic that Walt Disney promised to any visitor. Parents, by the droves, bring their children to this make-believe land paying close to one hundred dollars for each child’s admission. To say the least, you can spend a fortune in just one day at Disneyland. It is sobering to consider that on the other side of those gates in the numerous motels surrounding the land of dreams dwell poverty-stricken families hovering above the invisible line of homelessness on the streets. The number of displaced living in low-rent motels remains at a staggering one million across the country. This sobering thought inspired the creative and daring filmmaker, Sean Baker, to tell the story of those families living below poverty level in his new film, The Florida Project. His desire is to, "put a human face on a subject that has a stigma on it."
This story follows six-year-old Moonee, brilliantly played by Brooklyn Prince, who has been likened to Mickey Rooney as a child actor, and all her antics with friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) at Magic Castle Motel and Futureland Inn where they live with their families, all in the shadow of Mickey’s Magic Kingdom. They entertain themselves by running in the fields along the freeway, playing hide and seek in the motel offices, walking down the street to panhandle in order to buy one ice cream cone they share together. There is an innocent sweetness to the film in the midst of tragic poverty-stricken situations. Children are sometimes oblivious to the underlying struggles that plague their living conditions and can find joy in the simple pleasures of play and friendship.
Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), sporting platinum blue hair, pierced bottom lip, tank tops, sweat pants and rose tattoos all over her body, lays around most of the day in their motel room until money becomes tight. In most respects she is a bad mother, cursing constantly and showing her daughter how to give the finger to highway passersby. Brash and raw, Halley buys wholesale perfumes to peddle to guests in the parking lots of high-end hotels just to pay the weekly rent, which is often late. Her petty criminal activities lead to bigger issues of theft and prostitution. In all of this, she, albeit in an unconventional way, truly loves her daughter. She plays with her, makes sure she eats, bathes her, and gets excited over their plastic jewelry, showing that she is really just a child herself.
Bobby (Willem Dafoe) manages the Magic Castle Motel, where Halley and Moonee live, and much of his time taken up with getting the residents to pay their rent. Even so, Bobby shows his expansive compassion to all his struggling tenants. His character brings heart to this story. Baker said he and Dafoe interviewed actual motel managers and were particularly struck by one man who was an anchor for so many struggling families, who saw the need to keep his distance but was protective of the people in his motel and genuinely cared for them. Dafoe assumed this man's sensitivity and empathy in the character of Bobby. He attentively cared for those in his charge. While fixing yet another problem area of the motel, he spies a bunch of small children playing near the picnic tables with no adults present. An older man approaches them and Bobby quickly drives him out of the parking lot, away from the children, seeing through to the man’s real intentions. He really does care for the children especially, allowing the kids to play hide and seek around his desk in the office and making sure they stay out of trouble. When he is inspected by state services to make sure people do not stay in the rooms longer than a few weeks, Bobby helps Halley and Moonee move out temporarily, only to move them back into their room after the inspectors leave.
Sometimes we feel helpless in the face of poverty and wonder what we can do to help those in need. This film sweetly shows that every act of charity, every kind word, every compassionate response can make a difference in someone’s life. Too many are caught in the cycle of crime, drugs, and unemployment, leaving them begging to survive. It is especially heart-rending to see innocent children suffering from a system that seems insistent on keeping people in the cyclone of economic desolation. Yet, this film also reveals the innocence of childhood that can find joy in such a simple thing as an ice cream cone.
The Florida Project is a raw and rough portrayal of a prevalent reality, one that begs our attention and societal justice. Masterfully crafted by Sean Baker, this story reaches down deep into the emotions and pulls you out ready to act for those who live on the margins of society. As Baker says, "Ultimately, the more stories are told about marginalized communities, the less marginalized they will be." It all begins with awareness, and this film opened my eyes to an aspect of society that has been hidden for far too long. It just may be our collective call to action.