“The Florida Project” Offers a Rare Glimpse of Poverty on the Edge of Paradise

A new film from director Sean Baker shows the cycle of poverty that too many advocates of “pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps” refuse to see.

A screenshot from "The Florida Project." Photo: A24

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson offered a blunt summary of his view on poverty and how to get out of poverty in a radio interview last May. “I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind,” he told conservative radio personality Armstrong Williams. “You take somebody that has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while, they’ll be right back up there.”

In Carson’s view, that state of mind is the most powerful element in one’s economic future. “You take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world — they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom,” he added.

“The Florida Project,” the latest indie flick from writer-director Sean Baker, very much focuses on the state of mind of impoverished families living in a low-rent motel right outside Walt Disney World in Florida. But, unlike Carson’s one-dimensional portrait, the movie surveys the depth and range of personalities and emotions of those living in poverty on the edge of paradise.

We see the panic of a single mother faced with the prospect of becoming homeless by missing a rent check; the joys of children who have no summer camp or video games to keep them occupied but instead invent an adventure romping through an abandoned condominium rumored to be a crack den; the agony of a hotel manager who is willing to dip into his own pocket to keep a roof over the heads of his customers while also bearing the burden of chasing his own American Dream.

With the exception of the aforementioned hotel manager — Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe, who Baker smartly avoids over-using — most of the cast are newcomers or fairly new to film. This allows for the movie to present its characters as ordinary and therefore believable people.

Although every word of the story is fiction, the trials of the residents feel embedded in reality. Watching “The Florida Project,” you have a hard time escaping the fact that this is the ground truth for millions of Americans.

Much of the film revolves around Halley, played by cinematic neophyte Bria Vinaite. Halley is a single mother and long-term resident of the motel, who leads a Sisyphean existence of putting together the right hare-brained scheme to collect enough rent money to avoid eviction, only to repeat the task with the same mix of desperation and ingenuity for the next rent period.

The film takes place during summer break. Halley can barely afford the next day’s meal, let alone childcare, and everything in her life, good and bad is, shared with her daughter Moonee.

Moonee, played with an abundance of spunk by breakout star Brooklynn Prince, tags along with Halley to scalp perfume bottles outside premium hotels; she is also regularly deployed to skim free pancakes off a neighbor who works at a local diner.

The importance of Moonee’s role in the story is to highlight how a child experiences deep poverty in America. She lacks many of the amenities of her peers living in stable homes and prosperous families. She invents her own games to play, ranging from a spitting competition with her friends to staring at grazing cows in a nearby field.

The movie does not portray Halley or the other parents in the motel as simply noble victims. They make plenty of bad choices, many of which the moralizing Ben Carsons of the world would cite as evidence for their thesis.

Moonee’s mother is quick to use vulgar language, engage in outbursts of violence against her friends, and partake in petty crime. It seems that for every lucky break Halley gets, she cancels it out with a perilous decision. One of the most gripping scenes in the movie involves Halley assaulting a friend in a neighboring motel room as the friend’s son sits there and watches. After all, when you live in a square room, there is nowhere you can go to hide to escape verbal abuse or physical violence.

Some kids grow up with piano lessons and summers on overseas trips. Others grow up watching adults break each other’s bones.

That is the biggest hole in Carson’s theory about poverty largely being a “state of mind.” It is true that Carson speaks from authentic experience. He grew up in the slums of Detroit, surviving poverty and violence to become one of the world’s great neurosurgeons. Carson’s narrative is attractive for its simplicity.

Eventually, Moonee’s world collapses around her. Police and the Department of Child Services swirl around her increasingly erratic mother. Her friends are walled off by parents angry about Halley’s behavior. She gets many scoldings from Bobby for various acts of childhood vandalism. And we begin to wonder what kind of life is in store for a girl who is being denied much of what is needed for a child’s healthy development, as she is submerged in an unhealthy environment over-saturated with abuse, material deprivation, and violence.

In order to break that cycle of poverty, most people need some sort of intervention — but that takes resources and support that American society has thus far denied them. These can include great schools, guaranteed meals, medical care, therapy, medication, and an integrated environment that is enriching to children, not normalizing harmful behaviors.

Yes, some rise above poverty due to extraordinary mental and physical talents and a dose of good luck. But we know that, for instance, the “expected family income of children raised in families at the 90th income percentile is about three times that of children raised at the 10th percentile,” as a 2015 Pew research study found.

Although the movie doesn’t show us the life that led Halley to her current predicament, it would not be a stretch to assume that she, too, was once dragged by her mother from motel room to motel room. And for every Ben Carson, there are far more Halleys and Moonees.

Top photo: A screenshot from “The Florida Project.”

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