A few years ago, I woke up one morning to the sound of a man banging on the door of my family’s apartment. I staggered out of bed and answered it, still in a sleepy daze. He handed me a stack eviction papers and went on his way, not caring that I was clearly too young to be dealing with legal matters, that my parents weren’t home, or that I didn’t understand what was going on in the slightest. This was the culmination of many hardships that had struck my family, but it would just be the beginning of our journey.
Much of the next few weeks were a messy blur, and my memory of that time is still jogged to this day. All I know is that we lost our home, most of our possessions, and ended up at a motel, frantically negotiating with the owners to let us stay with what little money we had.
We stayed at that motel for quite awhile, although I could not tell you exactly how long it was. In that time, I completely lost and found myself – all at once. I was frustrated, angry, depressed, and searching for a way to cope with what had transpired in my life over such a short period of time. I immersed myself in art and music, which I can wholeheartedly say kept me alive in some way. It’s unclear what would have happened to me if I didn’t have art; whatever the case might have been, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this now. I also owe part of my survival to the other families in the motel who were in similar situations. Their unbelievable positivity radiated outward, they were always willing to lend us a helping hand, and most of all – they taught me the importance of community.
More recently, after discovering a passion for the art of movie-making, I’ve used cinema to fill in the gaps of my childhood and have sought safety in the escapism it offers. That said, I’ve struggled to see myself in the films I watch. Of course, there have been characters I’ve related to regardless of whether their lives were similar to mine or not – I think of the most powerful and transcendent qualities of film is to be able to convey emotions that are universal regardless of plot specifics. But it felt more than a little discouraging to not have any film I could point to as one that made me feel represented. Not necessarily just as a person or a set of personality traits, but as a story. As a collection of experiences that only come from living through certain circumstances.
That’s when Sean Baker’s The Florida Project came along. It was a film that reached me in a way no others had, making me feel represented by telling a story that I and countless others have experienced, yet is talked about so little. It showed me moments that seemed almost as though they had been ripped straight from my past. After watching it for the first time, my mom and I turned to each other and exchanged a tear-filled look, not needing to say anything to know what the other was thinking. This film changed my perspective on cinema and made me realize the power of representation, and that I have so many stories I want to tell in hopes that they could have a similar impact on someone else.
The Unwavering Optimism of Childhood
The Florida Project displays tragedy in an incredibly unique way. The film follows young Moonee and her mother Halley as they spend the summer living at The Magic Castle – a run down motel in the shadow of Disney World, clinging to the long forgotten fantasy of an idyllic family vacation. Instead of focusing on how the adults deal with hardship, we are lead by the precocious children of the story, allowing us to see the immediate effects that a situation like this has on them and how they explore their surroundings with curiosity and inquisitiveness.
The similarities between my own story instantly became apparent as I watched. Ironically, the motel I lived in was right outside of Disneyland in Orange County, California. Although my experience of living in a motel was marked with less whimsy and childlike wonder, I still met children who were just like the ones in the film, children who existed in this harsh environment almost blissfully. They would run and explore, never letting the boundaries of their situation hold them back. Me being older than most of them, I wondered how on earth they could be so happy in a place like this. I realized later that it was because, unlike me, they weren’t stuck in the past or in the future. They weren’t thinking about what they had lost or how scared they were of what would happen next, they were just thinking about the present, and all the things they could do with what was right in front of them. If there was a part of the motel they hadn’t explored, they’d treat it as an adventure and find a way to make every part of it exciting.
I realized that if they could find happiness in each day at the motel, regardless of how impossible finding that happiness seemed, then I could do the same. I can hardly even begin to explain how deeply it moved me to see these children represented so honestly on screen. It was astounding to me that a filmmaker was able to capture the essence of childhood in a motel so impeccably, while never feeling forced or over-dramatic. This is due in part to the fantastic performances of the young actors, who handled their roles with maturity well beyond their years.
The Details That Make up Our Lives
Taking on an endless, longing pace, The Florida Project makes time blend together – we often see only scattered parts of a day, much like a child’s memory of a hazy summer. It feels like a memory in the sense that some things seem so idyllic and dreamlike, even though the reality is far from a dream. This sort of loose format gives us an opportunity to look into not only memorable moments the characters share, but also the seemingly trivial ones that make up their everyday life.
An example of this would be a scene where Moonee picks out food from the back of a food bank’s truck. To most watching, this seems like a bizarre and out of the ordinary thing. But to Moonee and many others, this is a regular occurrence that serves to provide a more personal look into how the families of these communities survive. To me, focusing on these details is incredibly effective, because after all, it’s these kinds of instances that make up our lives and can have the biggest impact on us. Having these types of moments dispersed throughout the film provides a lingering tone of melancholy that sticks with you, juxtaposing the lively atmosphere that surrounds most of it. By zooming into this tiny slice of a much larger issue, we get to see an authentic and detailed image of what life is like for these families, and it allows the story to come to an emotional head by the conclusion, which is unfortunately how many of these situations end in reality.
The collection of secondary characters we see throughout the film are also very important. They represent the community that is built by these circumstances. They come from many backgrounds, and yet they struggle with many of the same things. And although they may not know each other well, they help one another in meaningful ways. Without these characters, we would not see the full scope of an issue like this. They flesh out the environment and add even more complexity to the story.
The truth is, representation of all kind has become increasingly important in today’s media – and rightfully so. Proper representation has the power to inspire and uplift, and it helps us learn about people and communities of all kind. One of the reasons I admire Sean Baker as a filmmaker is that he takes an incredibly humanistic approach to representation. It’s not about pushing an agenda, it’s about telling the stories of people who are not having their stories told or their voices heard.
Whenever I pass a motel, I always make note of it. They have become a beacon of familiarity for me, a reminder of the struggles I’ve lived through. But when I pass a motel, I also take a moment to think about those who are still in the situation I was lucky enough to escape, the children who still wonder when they will have a home to call their own. A film alone can’t solve everything, but knowing that people are seeing the story of those who often go unnoticed – that they are seeing my story, gives me so much hope for the future.