Sister Marie Paul and I both attended a screening of the new film by Sean Baker called The Florida Project. It’s about young Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who live full time in a low rent motel outside Disneyworld in Florida. For more about the story, please see Sr. Nancy’s review here.
Coming out of the theater, Sr. Paul and I had wildly different feelings about the film. She really felt it was powerful and well-done, but I had mixed feelings. We wanted to share our thoughts with you about this film through an interview.
What were your initial reactions after viewing The Florida Project?
Sister Paul: I was deeply moved by this film. At the beginning I was a bit restless, waiting for the story to begin. But I quickly realized that The Florida Project is a slice of life movie which, rather than telling me a well-defined story, invites me into the experience of the characters. The reason I was so moved by the film is that the character’s life we are invited into is six-year-old Moonee’s. Almost the entire film is from her perspective, which is not just a daring creative choice, but also adds to the film’s impact, revealing—as always in these kinds of desperate situations—that it is the most helpless and vulnerable, like little Moonee, who suffer the most from the breakdown of the family, from society’s injustice and indifference.
Sister Hosea: My first reaction was, unfortunately, negative. While there were aspects of the film I really loved, overall, it left me saddened but also angry, especially at Halley. She was like a kid herself, in no way ready to be a mother. She definitely loved Moonee but she didn’t care enough to work hard to better her situation.
What was it like seeing this story from a child’s perspective?
SP: Moonee’s perspective gives both a lightness and a pathos to the story that, under other circumstances, would have been unbearable or simply unwatchable. It is Moonee’s innocence, resilience, vulnerability, and playfulness that make her fictional story—and the true stories of all children in this situation—heartbreaking. Also, Moonee’s perspective made the details, the randomness of the events and the mostly lacking plot build-up more understandable. A young child doesn’t link events together nor correctly understand the consequences of behavior—and it emphasizes how innocent Moonee really is.
The intense focus on Moonee’s experience could be a reflection on the childhood of the mother, Halley, who seems like an irresponsible older sibling rather than a mother. Halley doesn’t teach, discipline, or take good care of Moonee. In addition to neglecting her daughter, Halley involves Moonee in her manipulative schemes for stealing, begging, and reselling stolen goods. If Moonee can manipulate others so well, it is because she has seen it—and done it!—with her mother.
Halley does try a few different things to earn money after she loses her job, but she easily gives up. Her seemingly bitter passivity to her fate makes us wonder if she has already tried everything she knows and is now simply desperate not to end up on the street with her daughter. The only thing that Halley does well, which shows how much Halley cares for her daughter, is how she plays with Moonee. This is a lovely detail we see through Moonee’s eyes.
SH: One thing the film did a wonderful job of was showing the innocence of childhood. Moonee lives in a horrible situation but she’s still an innocent kid. The less desirable of her traits she learned from her mother but most of the time she does what any curious child would do—go exploring, play with her friends, and annoy adults. Her living conditions are all she knows and she finds joy in the little things life offers, especially the other kids who are tenants of the motel.
Were there positive things in Halley and Moonee’s life at the motel?
SP: Moonee’s friendships with the other children—especially Scooty and Jancey, were definitely positive because Moonee had companionship. It is a terrible thing for a neglected child to feel all alone.
Kudos to Willem Dafoe for taking on the unappreciated role of motel manager in an arthouse film that probably won’t be (but should be) seen by many. He is, in many ways, the lens of the filmmakers—compassionate eyes revealing the plight of those trapped in poverty. Dafoe’s character is, in many ways, the brightest light in the film. He is an advocate for those living in the motel. He protects them out of the goodness of heart, yet is honest with them too. He keeps a special eye out for Moonee, and seems to see her situation more clearly than most of the people in the film (who are simply trying to survive). But ultimately, he is a powerless to save her from the consequences of the poverty and neglect she suffers.
SH: I really loved Willem Dafoe’s character, Bobby. He was the long-suffering motel manager. I think Bobby embodied compassion for his residents. He watched over the kids, put up with their shenanigans. He was never condescending to Halley or the others living at the motel. He always showed them respect and treated them with dignity even as he had to make sure that their rent was paid.
The other mostly-good influence for Halley was her friend, Ashley. Ashley had a job at a diner and supplied Halley and Moonee with leftovers. She took her responsibilities as a mother seriously and when hanging out with a brash and rash Moonee caused her son, Scooty, to act irresponsibly, she took action.
Why tell a story like this?
SP: The Florida Project is a very human story that exposes the complexity of families suffering from many types of poverty. The film explores an all-too-common situation that most in our society would prefer to ignore, but in a creatively daring and endearing way: from the point of view of the young child who is the innocent victim. It also heightens awareness of those whose lives are so desperate that they are just one step away from tragedy.
SH: For the sake of awareness. Those of us who have the luxury of going to see films probably don’t know too many people who live from week-to-week in low-rent motels. They are people who live on the outskirts of society, seemingly ignored by most. Telling a story like this one can inspire people to ask themselves what they can do to help people trapped in poverty.
In your opinion, did the film fulfill its purpose?
SP: Yes. Because this is an arthouse film that risks telling a difficult story, The Florida Project captures much of the complexity of the experience of a broken family, especially that of the most vulnerable—the neglected child with one parent completely absent and the other neglectful and incompetent. It was a frustrating film to watch because I could see how Moonee was suffering and how much she needed a real mother; I was angry at Halley and wanted her to do something that could actually provide for her daughter, but I also got the sense that she didn’t think she could, that she felt trapped. Maybe no one had helped her when she most needed help.
This messy, uncomfortable film is more real than a neatly told, compressed-in-two-hours complete story. This film doesn’t tell us the backstory nor the ending. In real life, we usually don’t know the backstory of the people we meet who are in need of a helping hand; we only see the day to day. Some characters in the film made a difference, or tried to make a difference, to Moonee—Bobby the hotel manager, the social worker, Scooty’s mother. But ultimately, when the family itself is broken from within, when a person seems broken or trapped by life itself, there is little any of us can do in just one moment. Halley and Moonee needed help a long time ago. And Moonee needs help now to prevent her from growing into the same cycle of injustice and poverty.
The film’s ending leaves us hanging on purpose. I believe it is an urgent call to us to do something now, to change from passive viewer into actively helping the next person we meet who is struggling with poverty.
SH: Yes and no. On one hand, it did raise awareness in me of the situation of people like Halley and Moonee. On the other hand, it failed to move me. I don’t want to sound like I’m without compassion for people like the characters in the film. That’s far from the truth. I do have compassion for them. However, it’s my feeling that in order for a film to truly inspire the audience, the characters have to move them. I was moved by Moonee and by Bobby, especially for the respect and dignity he bestowed on the residents in all his interactions with them. However, Halley drove me nuts. At one point we find out that she lost her job but she doesn’t work hard to find another one. She only does what’s necessary to get the weekly rent, even resorting to prostitution. She never seems to work to better her situation, if not for herself, then for her daughter. That, more than anything else, bothered me about the film. If Halley had at least tried to help herself but still failed, I think I might have had a very different reaction.
After having had time to think about the film and digest it, what seems to be your greatest take-away from The Florida Project?
SP: The Florida Project helped me to understand better the pain and complexity of helping families that suffer from so many different kinds of poverty (material, emotional, spiritual, developmental, etc.). Maybe tagging around with Moonee for two hours will make me better able to see and respond more quickly to signs of distress in families, so that they don’t end up stranded in poverty and tragedy next to Disneyworld.
SH: I think there are two things I’m thinking and praying about after having seen the film. First, is to do what I can personally when I come across people in desperate situations. As a religious sister, I’m not in a position where I can give them monetary help, but I can always treat people I meet, especially on the streets, with respect and dignity, offer them a hello, a smile, and promise of prayer. Second, is to really pray for the healing of the hearts of people within the “system.” The social systems that are supposed to help people in situations like the ones in this film are flawed. I don’t have the power to change the system but I can pray for the people who do have that power. I pray that their hearts are moved to enact policies that will help people like Halley in the long term and then have the courage to see those policies enforced so no one will fall through the cracks.