“I decided to be awesome today,” reads Moonee’s shirt in the opening scene of The Florida Project. It’s a rather fitting statement for six-year-old Moonee, who darts confidently about the halls of the Magic Castle Hotel with her friend Scooty in tow. The pair are modern day “little rascals,” causing trouble and substituting f-bombs for “oh-tay”s. Yet the children’s whimsical names and the hotel’s gaudy purple paint job only briefly conceal the disarray. As hotel doors swing open, they reveal a startling reality.
Orlando, Fla., is most known for the Walt Disney World theme park that draws millions of visitors to the area each year. Yet few realize that the discount hotels they drive past on their way to the parks are occupied not by tourists, but by the homeless. They are who The Florida Project director Sean Baker refers to as the “hidden homeless,” as they live, mostly unnoticed, at the fringes of a billion dollar resort. In The Florida Project, their stories find a platform.
Moonee's (Brooklyn Prince) “Magic Castle” hotel bears little resemblance to Disney’s towering Cinderella palace. Though shown through Moonee’s eyes, the place gains new life. It’s where she and her friends share ice-cream cones, dance on the picnic tables, and spy on Gloria — an older resident of the hotel who dons a cowboy hat and frequents the pool topless. Moonee lives on the third floor of the hotel with her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who is just as loud and brazen as her daughter. Underemployed and heavily tattooed, Halley spends much of her time smoking pot and watching television. While her parenting is erratic, it’s clear that she cares deeply for Moonee.
Halley, like many young mothers living out of hotels, has no formal education and no family support. Without a safety net, she’s functioning in survival mode and raising a child in the midst of it. Through her, Baker gently reminds us that poverty is an experience, and not a human trait, as books like Hillbilly Elegy might lead us to believe. What ultimately makes The Florida Project so compelling is that none of Baker’s characters are sympathetic caricatures of poverty. They’re brash, defiant, and they go about things in all the wrong ways. They’re honest and human. They’ve taken a beating, but they’re not broken. And, as Baker shows us, they’re worthy of our attention.
In a rousing tour given to her friend Jancey, Moonee reveals that homelessness is often experienced by those suffering from mental health disorders and addiction — “The man who lives in here gets arrested a lot,” she says. “The woman in here thinks she’s married to Jesus.”
Yet Moonee doesn’t present these as things to fear. For her, these things just simply are. To Moonee, these people are not just hotel occupants, they’re her community. For real children like Moonee, they’re babysitters, friends, and teachers. It’s important to remember, that they are also part of our community. As Sean Baker said to Sojourners, “This is not just an Orlando problem, this is a national problem. It might be happening under your nose and you don’t even know it.”
As people of faith, we are called not just to see, but to bear witness. “There’s obviously an inevitable conclusion to what’s happening in Moonee’s story, but there’s still hope.” Sean Baker said.
“There is still hope because it’s telling the audience we need your help ... I don’t want it to be nihilistic. I want there to be a motivation to help change.”
Moonee’s story may be visible for only 110 minutes, but it is our job to ensure children like her do not disappear from public discourse. Children like her exist all across the United States, and it is our responsibility to act for their benefit. Let us urge those in congress to cease their budget cuts and provide more funding for Public Housing Projects, and stand with them in legislation like the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Let us adhere to the principles commanded in Matthew 25, and be true, loving neighbors to the Moonees and the Halleys in our communities.