Carolyn Van Houten
The Washington Post
Some of the best movies in history have dealt with characters who were just barely scraping by — “Bicycle Thieves” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Modern Times.” But filmmakers today tend to avert their eyes from the horrors of financial hardship. Superhero stories are just more photogenic.
Sean Baker is one exception. He gravitates toward overlooked subjects, such as the black transgender prostitutes at the center of his acclaimed low-budget marvel “Tangerine” in 2015. His latest feature, the rapturously received “The Florida Project,” is about homelessness, and could be a blueprint for filmmakers who want to explore social issues because of the savvy way it’s captivating audiences: It may be the most joyful movie about poverty ever screened.
That’s because it’s told from the perspective of Moonee, played by 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince. Moonnee and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) live in the purple-painted Magic Castle motel, a stone’s throw from Disney World, and they’re part of Florida’s hidden homeless population — people who don’t have prospects for permanent housing so they resort to couch surfing with relatives or find other temporary alternatives. That means, statistically, they often aren’t counted as homeless.
According to Shelley Lauten, the chief executive of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, the movie is important not just because it depicts characters without stable housing, but because it shows the non-stereotypical side of a nationwide epidemic. This isn’t about the physically or mentally ill middle-aged man living under a bridge.
Moonee, a precocious 6-year-old girl, lives with her mother Halley in a community of extended-stay motel guests in pastel-streaked Kissimmee, Fla.
“It’s what I call our tsunami of homelessness,” she said over the phone recently. “It’s the group that, across the country, we’re not doing a very good job of figuring out how to stabilize.”
According to a recent JP Morgan Chase study, in Florida alone, there are 72,000 homeless school-age children, which doesn’t even account for those younger than five, Lauten said incredulously. That includes kids whose families are living doubled up or staying at motels like the one in the movie. Although the reasons that families end up in this situation vary, it usually goes back to economic instability. Many of the parents work, but they simply don’t make enough to afford housing.
In the movie, Halley can’t find a job so, to make ends meet, she buys perfume from a wholesaler and sells it outside a swanky nearby resort. Moonnee and her friends, meanwhile, go searching for fun while stirring up trouble. They run to a pasture and moo at cows and have spitting contests. They wander into abandoned buildings and cajole strangers into buying them ice cream. Occasionally they drop by the motel’s main office where they terrorize Bobby, the tenderhearted but long-suffering manager (played by a transcendent Willem Dafoe).
“These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in,” Moonee mischievously tells a new friend, before squealing, “but let’s go in anyways!”
All the while the children are naive to the dangers around them, including the creepy guy hanging around nearby and the fast-moving traffic on the highway just beyond their temporary home. They’re none the wiser that their parents are getting into fistfights about adult problems that kids can’t yet understand.
The world is simply a fun place to be.
“When there’s no moment of levity in a movie, I don’t believe it,” Baker said by way of explanation after a recent preview screening. Homelessness is a tragedy, but a movie about it doesn’t have to be.
The stars of “Tangerine,” Mya Taylor, left, and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, right, pose for a portrait with Baker, who directed the film.
Baker had wanted to make “The Florida Project” since 2011 when his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, told him about hidden homelessness. In the meantime, the pair made “Tangerine,” which became known as “that movie shot on an iPhone,” but it was so much more: a kinetic, farcical romantic comedy set on the seedier streets of Los Angeles. Baker has a habit of making movies about characters who are overlooked by other filmmakers, not to mention society at large.
He’s glad he made “Tangerine” first because it inspired an epiphany.
“I make dramedies, but ‘Tangerine’ really has a lot of comedy, and I saw that it had a great effect — it reached a larger audience,” he said during a recent visit to The Washington Post offices alongside Prince and Vinaite. “People were saying, ‘Oh I loved laughing with [the main characters] Alexandra and Sin-Dee so much that I fell in love with them, and now I’m concerned about the real trans women of color who resort to the underground economy.’”
In other words, “Tangerine,” like “The Florida Project,” was an issue film dressed up as offbeat entertainment. They’re meant to open our eyes to the travails of neglected Americans living on the fringes, even if Baker insists, “I don’t have the answers. I’m just posing questions.”
Willem Dafoe and Prince in “The Florida Project.”
“The Florida Project” isn’t alone in bringing poverty to the big screen. Last year’s best picture Oscar winner, “Moonlight,” followed a boy growing up in Miami, living with a drug-addicted mother. But dramas about poverty are few and far between, especially in this era when midsize movies are rarely greenlit, because they aren’t guaranteed to bring in huge amounts of cash at the box office. The movies that do get made about a struggling demographic, such as “Hell or High Water,” are often couched in another genre, like a heist movie or murder mystery.
“The Florida Project” isn’t all fun and games. There are moments that will surely break your heart. But it never resorts to melodrama.
For research, Baker and Bergoch traveled to Florida and met with motel residents and managers, plus nonprofits and social agencies. None of them tried to dictate how to tell the story.
“One thing I got from everybody in the area is there was a real desire to have the stories told,” Baker said. An early draft had Halley struggling with an addiction that was later excised from the script. “But even that, when we passed it by some of the agencies, they were fine with it. It’s a very complicated issue and if you look into the reasons why certain families are stuck in this situation, there are so many numerous reasons.”
Halley is a particularly complicated character. Bitter and volatile, she curses like a sailor and throws tantrums like a toddler. But Vinaite sees plenty of redeeming qualities in her.
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“The thing I admire about Halley the most is that, as much as she’s going through — all these struggles — she never puts it on her daughter,” Vinaite said. “Imagine not having anyone to talk to or any family to help and also having to take care of a child that you don’t want to overwhelm with problems of the household.”
According to Lauten, that depiction is very realistic. Many people across the country may be struggling financially but they aren’t in danger of homelessness, because they have support networks of family and friends to help them. Hidden homelessness is often, in part, the product of broken relationships.
But even in a place where people don’t have much, there’s a generosity of spirit. In the movie, you see it when mothers agree to look after each other’s kids or let another family crash in their room for a night. Baker saw it, too, when he was doing research. One motel manager, who partially inspired the character of Bobby, was especially helpful. Baker said he kept offering the man a consulting credit or some kind of compensation, but he said no. He just wanted this story told.
Lauten, who saw an early screening of the movie, praises the film for portraying the characters sensitively, realistically and with a great deal of respect. Now the trick is spreading the word — letting audiences know this is a very real problem, not just in Florida, but nationwide.
“I really do believe that people will be shocked that this is not fantasy,” Lauten said. “This is reality.”