Giggling children aren’t normally what you think of when you’re talking about family homelessness, but that’s exactly what Sean Baker’s new movie The Florida Project serves up. Of course, there’s always more to the story.
The tears, the frustration, the agonizing choices that no family should ever be forced to make—those things come, too. But what The Florida Project does best is show all of these things through the magic of childhood. It refuses to accept that deep trauma can’t go hand in hand with love and wonder, because in real life it almost always does. That complexity is part of what makes this film must-watch material for any government officials working on affordable housing.
In the gilded wasteland of tourist trap Florida, six-year-old Moonee and her young mother Halley have made their home in a bright purple discount motel: The Magic Castle. Well, not technically “home”—we’re soon treated to the family’s monthly ritual of marching all of their belongings out of their room and spending one night at the motel next door. It’s a move that’s mandated by The Magic Castle’s management to avoid Moonee and her mother being able to claim residency, in which case the motel would be “totally screwed.”
These slums outside the teeming metropolis of Disney may look almost uninhabitable, but they present a wonderfully lively and colorful canvas for Moonee and her friends to paint their own adventures. The shrieks of excitement and happiness that ring out as these kids go on safari through abandoned grass fields or play in the back of a box store parking lot are so real and genuine (Brooklyn Price as Moonee is indisputably the star of the movie) that in the first 30 minutes, it’s possible to be lulled into thinking that maybe life isn’t so bad for these children and their families.
Moonee and friends explore abandoned houses in typical rambunctious fashion
The community among the adults is equally close-knit, and the shared parenting that happens at The Magic Castle is enough to put any upper-class family neighborhood to shame. Another community fixture is Bobby (William Dafoe), the gruff but deeply loving hotel manager/father figure. Although Dafoe does a great job in the role, it’s still highly improbable. It’s a very rare low-income family that has a property manager who not only keeps sewage out of the bathtub, but takes an active interest in their lives.
Of course, even with that arguably unrealistic advantage, life just doesn’t go that smoothly for long when your family is homeless. Things start to fall apart for Moonee and Halley, and as their downward spiral plays out on screen, the audience is forced to contemplate one question over and over: what should Halley have done differently?
The answer is… nothing. Despite what the hotel owner next door might think, despite what HUD Secretary Ben Carson might say, this homelessness is not Halley’s fault, and no amount of positive thinking or bootstrap-pulling is going to get her family out of it.
Job opportunities never materialize. Halley puts in long hours selling perfume and other trinkets to tourists, occasionally blurring the lines between salesperson and panhandler. Somehow it’s often enough to keep them in The Magic Castle, which costs $38 a night—over $1100 a month.
That figure alone points to a fundamental truth of homelessness: you have to have money to save money. Halley isn’t financially secure enough for a lease, so she’s forced to overpay for a motel. She can’t afford a place with a kitchen, so she and her daughter are forced to bear the financial and physical costs of take-out for every meal.
Halley isn’t doing anything wrong. The system just doesn’t work for her family and thousands upon thousands of others like hers. This point is driven home in a hauntingly sweet and cruelly ironic scene where Moonee and her friends explore row after row of blighted houses in an abandoned development, presumably a leftover from the housing crash.
“This would be my bed,” intones Moonee with a smile. “This would be my bookcase.”
Maybe, if Secretary Carson sees and understands The Florida Project, that can be reality for another little girl just like Moonee.
Then again, a campaign to turn low-income property managers into father figures might just be more realistic.