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The Florida Project: Hollywood Spotlights Hardship in Sunshine State

Read the original blog on the Huffington Post website. 

The number of families living in motels in Florida has increased dramatically since the 2008 mortgage crisis that forced many low-income earners out of their homes. The Florida Project, a new movie by Scott Baker, highlights the plight of some of these families living right next to “the happiest place on earth,” Disney World.

The movie is strong and impactful and certain to produce a similar splash to last year’s “Moonlight,” a movie that depicts the childhood of an African American boy raised in poverty by a mother grappling with addiction near Miami.

In an interview, Willem Dafoe, who stars in the movie, and Scott Baker, the director, shared their desire to show the difficult living conditions the families living in the Florida motels are facing—as unsuspecting tourists drive by them to get to Disneyworld, barely noticing the children running up and down the strip. The juxtaposition of the two worlds is effectively rendered in the movie.

The Florida Project was filmed on location in Florida using motels and amusement centers on commercial strips as backdrops. The boldly painted motels and gaudy buildings against the bright Florida sky add to the unsettling feeling that this is somehow not the best place for children to be growing up. Their mere presence there seems awkward and unsafe with just motel parking lots between them and the major artery of the transient strip.

The movie succeeds in showing the emotional entanglement of motel staff and reactions from other bystanders (unsuspecting tourists booking a stay for a week at Disney). Willem Dafoe’s character, the motel manager, grapples with running his business while remaining supportive and compassionate – even protective – of the children and the main protagonist, a single mom with addiction issues who prostitutes to support her daughter. The character appears more like a social worker or an advocate at times. This duality creates an interesting tension in the plot and seems well suited. How could anybody not be moved to a higher level of sensitivity in a situation where norms fly on (motel) walls and precariousness leads to survival behaviors?

The movie sometimes flows like a documentary, depicting the plight of working parents on one hand and minor and major mishaps in the residents’ lives on the other. But, the overwhelming feeling is that the children are exposed to a high level of risk and grow up too fast. They use adult referencing and develop precocious coping mechanisms.

To add to the complexity, families are made to exit their rooms for a night on a regular basis to avoid breaking local residency laws that bar taking up residence in motels. In my research for this blog, I stumbled upon a similar law in Wareham, Massachusetts where single adults and families who have also taken to living in motels are faced with the same kind of local ordinance.

As one of the residents in Wareham shared, living in a motel room is a step up from pitching a tent in the woods. This comment struck me as making a lot of sense. At the same time, however, it is hard not to view this trend as a troubling step down from apartment or house living, especially when several family members are sharing such a small space without adequate kitchen facilities.

When you pair this thought with statistics indicating that close to 7 million people live in doubled up situations in the US, you can’t help but think that we need to make sure our elected officials keep the issue of affordable housing on the forefront of the political debate everywhere in the country.

To end on a happier note, Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto, the three newcomers in the movie, are just superb! We will no doubt see them again soon on the big screen.

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