“The Florida Project” — Homelessness at the End of the Rainbow

It’s up to advocates to connect this story of family homelessness to action

By Katie Bradley, project assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

 

As the credits for The Florida Project rolled, I was floored. This movie made me cry while I sat in the theater, and I didn’t even cry when I saw Titanic for the first time as a child. A movie about a family living in poverty at an Orlando budget motel got to me in the most heart-wrenching way.

I had just seen a raw portrait of family homelessness set in contrast with the happiest place on earth, Disney World. It made me want to do something to help families living like those depicted in the film. But I felt lost with what I could do, and it left me with my head spinning.

Fortunately for me, I work with a bunch of people who think about family homelessness all the time, and we think that we may be able to connect audiences to action, which we will explore later. First, here’s a description of this remarkable film and what it says about family homelessness.

Bobby and Moonee on balcony
Bobby (Willem Dafoe) and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the two main characters in the movie, at the real-life Magic Castle budget hotel.  Credit: IMDB.

 

The Florida Project is a breakout movie that depicts the struggles of living in poverty from a childhood perspective, set in a not-so-magical purple budget motel, the Magic Castle. The film depicts the often-unseen struggles of homelessness, which director and co-writer Sean Baker calls the “hidden homeless,” to represent the life of the modern-day “Little Rascals” who live a “life on the margins.”

A film that even my mom knows about

Because the film is making waves in the film industry and touches on a type of homelessness that very few people recognize, A24, the independent entertainment company promoting The Florida Project, has been hosting screenings to build support for the film at the housing advocate level.

I had the pleasure of attending the Seattle screening of The Florida Project Oct. 19, hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supported by our SU Project on Family Homelessness, Housing Development Consortium, and the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

Florida Project invite
The invitation to the Oct. 19 screening features the iconic image of Moonee, wearing a t-shirt that says “follow your dreams” — with the Magic Castle at the end of the rainbow

Before the screening, I researched the movie and found rave reviews about the dynamic plot and cast. It seemed like everyone was talking about it. Even my mom mentioned seeing it in featured in a magazine, so that’s when I realized that the movie had a far reach. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of “94% fresh,”  my expectations for the film were set high.

Florida Project tomatometer
With a “tomatometer” rating consistently in the 90s – reflecting the percentage of positive critic reviews – The Florida Project is “certified fresh” on movie review website Rotten Tomatoes. Image retrieved Nov. 15, 2017

As a project assistant with the Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness, I was intrigued to see how the film would portray the “hidden homelessness” that the children in the film experience. In fact, my fellow project assistant Madison Vucci and I had noted that Sean Baker had found the actress who played Halley (Bria Vinaite) on Instagram. Naturally, we checked out Vinaite’s Instagram account and that of the phenomenal young Brooklynn Prince who at age 6 plays Moonee in the film.

We noted the well-off lifestyles the actresses lived before the film, and wondered how they would be able to relate to the struggle of family homelessness.

Florida Project Bria Brrooklynn Instagram
A post from Bria Vinaite’s Instagram (@chronicflowers) of the mother-and-daughter duo. The actors’ social media accounts added intrigue before the film.

A brush with filmmakers

I arrived at AMC Pacific Place for the reception and screening excited to learn more about the issue and to finally see the movie for myself.

Florida Project Screening-Lobby Poster
A stand-up poster board promoting the film at AMC Pacific Place subtly encourages you to “find your kingdom” as Moonee runs outside the Magic Castle. Photo by Katie Bradley.

 

At the reception beforehand, I met homelessness advocates and was able to prepare myself for the emotional rollercoaster I was about to embark on. I met Sara’o Bery, the a24 Grassroots, Events & Brand representative for the film, and caught a glimpse of Sean Baker, the director and co-writer of the film. Meeting Sara’o and seeing Sean Baker is the closest I have ever been in my life to the people responsible for the making of a film, and it made me even more eager for what I was about to see on the big screen.

Florida Project Screening-Katie Madison reception
Madison (R) and me enjoying the reception before the start of the screening. Behind us to the left, you can catch a glimpse of Q&A moderator Reiny Cohen (with her back to us), Molly Franey of Building Changes and our “sister project” leader Lisa Gustaveson, now with the City of Seattle. Photo by Tafari Maynard.
Florida Project Screening-Theater
A view of the theater as people begin filtering in before the start of the screening. Director Sean Baker is standing in the aisle at the front right. Photo by Katie Bradley.

Sean Baker gave a brief introduction to the film and then the movie started to roll. I felt like I was instantly transported as I watched Moonee and her friend Scooty hock loogies at a car in the Florida heat. As the vivacious Moonee runs wild with a group of friends, the movie has a fast tempo with the children placed at the center of the film.

 

Florida Project gif spitting
Moonee and friends spitting on cars at the Futureland Inn Motel, credit A24

 

 

From scamming tourists for ice cream to treat their “asthma,” to bringing fish back to life in a chlorinated pool, to exploring an abandoned condo development, the escapades of Moonee and her friends are freeing and joyful. You can’t help but feel their childhood wonder as they go exploring throughout the Kissimmee, Fla. area.

Meanwhile, juxtaposed with the lack of supervision that allows for untamed exploration, lies a contrast to the childhood joy — with adults Halley and Bobby.

 

Florida Project shopping cart gif
Young mom Halley and daughter Moonee play at a store, and the fun, loving bond between the two is clear.  Credit A24.

 

The fierce love of teen mom Halley for daughter Moonee is clear. Much like a grown-up child herself, Halley never misses an opportunity to have fun with Moonee. Yet, here is where the viewer might feel judgment start to creep in.

Questioning Halley as a mother, and other judgments

The lack of narrative for Halley’s past reduces the portrayal of the struggle to a personal failing. “She should be watching her daughter. She should just get a job like her friend. She shouldn’t use that language around children. If she were a better mother, her daughter would not be living like she is.” These are thoughts that easily start to creep in as you watch the unconventional mother-daughter relationship between Halley and Moonee.

Just when the film raised the question of parenting competence for me and probably others in the audience, I felt myself thanking the stars for a character like Bobby, the hotel manager played by Hollywood legend Willem Dafoe. Bobby watches over all of the children in the motel, which is shown quickly and fiercely in the scene in which an elderly creep starts hanging around the motel’s playground.

Bobby balances out Halley’s missteps as a mother in the film. This is where, from my perspective, the film strayed from storytelling and started stigmatizing the struggle of family homelessness.

As an audience member, you probably don’t walk away from the film liking the character of Halley. In fact, you may start to believe that she is inadequate, and even understand the need for Child Protective Services when they try to take Moonee away from her care. Yet, her devastation as a mother is palpable as she challenges, “You want me to help you take my child away? Are you serious?”

 

Florida Project hitching gif
Halley hitching for a birthday surprise. In the film, we never learn about her background and what has led her to the Magic Castle.  Credit A24

 

 

Halley is never given the grace of a background story, a tale of what led to her living in a motel as a single parent with a young daughter. The lack of a backstory is important because I believe that it can lead to a lack of compassion for the family’s struggle. Often, family homelessness is not a one-time experience; it can be generational. Children who were homeless with their families can have a hard time breaking the cycle, which causes many children to end up homeless as youth and/or adults.

Maybe this was Halley’s childhood; but we do not know her struggle, which could cause many audiences to simply cast her off as a “bad mother.”

Where to go next

I think the film did a great job showcasing the marginalized life of those experiencing “hidden homelessness” outside of the happiest place on earth. But, The Florida Project does not stand on its own in representing what we can do to help end family homelessness. I wish that the character of Halley were explored more in the film and that we learned how her background led her to this crossroads.

 

Florida Project rainbow running gif
Moonee and Jancey run towards the Magic Castle with a rainbow overhead.  Credit A24. 

 

The end of the film leaves a lot to the imagination, which may be the point. You wonder what happens to Moonee, but in the pit of your stomach you know what happens. The film also leaves audiences wondering what they can do to help families experiencing homelessness.

During the post-film Q&A, moderated by our partner Reiny Cohen of Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, someone asked Baker what audiences could do next after being called to action by the film. He replied that he has partnered with one Florida organization, Community Hope Center, Hope 192, and was open to hearing what homelessness advocates had to add.

But that fell short for local audiences, and a quick audience Q&A wasn’t really the proper setting to develop a set of action steps. Still, that paves the way for advocates to help answer the question. (And I’ve noticed that in interviews since, Baker emphasizes local action much more. You can tell he really cares about this issue.)

After the event, I learned that I was not alone in feeling disappointed about what felt like a missed opportunity. My supervisor, Catherine, mentioned talking afterwards with our colleague Lisa Gustaveson, who said “What it needs is a discussion guide.” Lisa, as project manager of the Faith & Family Homelessness Project, had helped us develop several discussion guides that she used for dozens of film screenings with faith communities. These include the guides for American Refugees and the documentary features @home (about social media advocate Mark Horvath) and American Winter (the HBO film about homeless families calling 211 in Portland, Ore.)

I liked that idea and took a crack at developing a guide, based on those guides that our projects had produced previously. That led us to think more about how this film could serve as an advocacy tool. We’ve been talking to local partners and to the filmmakers about how to make that happen. We hope to share more in the next month or two.

What You Can Do

When audiences experience powerful emotion that impels them to want to act, we should prominently highlight some next steps and ways to help those families experiencing homelessness. Here are some next steps that I believe fit the movie and can help families like Halley and Moonee.

  1. Watch The Florida Project and talk about it with your friends, family, colleagues and others. A discussion guide like the one I wrote as a sample (more on that to come), or those above, can frame your discussion through the lens of family homelessness.
  2. Share your thoughts about The Florida Project on social media. Use the hashtag #TheFloridaProject. Tag and follow @FloridaProject and @A24 on Twitter, @TheFloridaProject on Facebook and @thefloridaproject on Instagram.
  3. Watch other movies about family homelessness like SU’s “American Refugees” or The Florida Project‘s documentary predecessor, “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County” on HBO.
  4. Check out our list of 10 things you can do to help end family homelessness. While it is designed for the Seattle area, many steps can be localized to your community.
  5. Keep an eye on the film awards* coming up in the next few months. I won’t be surprised to see The Florida Project winning some awards, which gives us an even greater platform for advocacy. UPDATE: It already has. See below…

Editor’s Note: As Katie mentioned, because our advocacy community sees so much potential in this beautiful film, we’re working with A24 to brainstorm ideas that can elevate the film and the issue. Watch for more here on this blog.

 

*THE FLORIDA PROJECT AWARDS WATCH:

In chronological order…

Gotham Awards: Nominated for four awards — Best Feature, Best Director (Sean Baker), Best Actor (Willem Dafoe), Best Breakthrough Actor (Brooklynn Prince). Ceremony was Nov. 27, 2017. Congratulations on these nominations.

National Board of Review: Two honors. The Florida Project was named one of the Top 10 Films of 2017. Willem Dafoe was named Best Supporting Actor. Announced Nov. 28, 2017. Gala is Jan. 9, 2018.

New York Film Critics Circle: Two honors. Sean Baker was named Best Director and Willem Dafoe is Best Supporting Actor. Announced Nov. 30, 2017. Ceremony is Jan. 3, 2018.

Los Angeles Film Critics Awards: Two honors. Willem Dafoe was named Best Supporting Actor; the film was named runner-up for Best Picture. Announced Dec. 3, 2017.

San Francisco Film Critics Circle: Two honors. The Florida Project was named Best Picture and Willem Dafoe was named Best Supporting Actor. Announced Dec. 10, 2017.

Golden Globe Awards: Nomination for Willem Dafoe as Best Supporting Actor. Nominations announced Dec. 11, 2017. Winners will be announced at the ceremony Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, live on NBC (8 p.m. Eastern/5 p.m. Pacific).

Critics Choice Awards: Nominated for three awards — for the film as Best Picture; for Willem Dafoe as Best Supporting Actor; and for Brooklynn Prince as Best Young Actor/Actress. Nominations announced Dec. 6, 2017. Winners will be announced at the ceremony Thursday night, Jan. 11, 2018, live on The CW. (Note: the organization says it is historically the best predictor of Academy Award nominations.)

Screen Actors Guild Awards: Willem Dafoe was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Nominations announced Dec. 13, 2017. Winners will be announced at the ceremony Sunday night, Jan. 21, 2018, live on TBS and TNT.

Independent Spirit Awards: Nominated for two awards — Best Feature and Best Director (Sean Baker). Nominations announced Nov. 21, 2017. Winners will be announced at the ceremony Saturday afternoon, March 3, 2018, live on IFC.

 

Still to Come: Writers Guild of America screenplay nominations Jan. 4, Producers Guild of America nominations Jan. 5, Directors Guild of America feature film nominations Jan. 11, Academy Award nominations Jan. 23 and ceremony March 4, 2018.

As of Dec. 11, 2017: of the nine film critics groups to weigh in so far, says Goldderby.com, four have named The Florida Project as the best picture of the year — more than any other film. Willem Dafoe has been honored as Best Supporting Actor by seven of these groups — far more than anyone else. 

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