'The Florida Project': movie about our 'hidden homeless'




Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series about the recent film, “The Florida Project,” and the story behind its development. Much of the film’s storyline is based on the work being done by Rev. Mary Downey, executive director of the Community Hope Center in Kissimmee, which serves homeless families.

The film will be screened at the Polk Theatre in Lakeland on Friday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m. If you would like to purchase tickets, click here. Also, please note that this film has an "R" rating.


Film director Sean Baker wanted to tell a story about the hidden homeless, but he needed access to their world along U.S. 192 in the shadow of Disney World. The Rev. Mary Downey, executive director of the Community Hope Center in Kissimmee, opened the door for him.

Brooklynn Prince, lead character in a movie release about homeless families, "The Florida Project," enjoys a lens eye view of filming on location. To help create realism, many of the cast who participated in the film were first-time actors. 

Downey, a United Methodist deacon, started the center—also known as Hope 192—in 2013. It is the primary outreach agency that serves the homeless in Osceola County, a tourist mecca with a severe housing crisis.

People come to the agency all the time offering to help, Downey said, but usually, nothing comes of it. Baker and writer Chris Bergoch were different. They kept coming back.

“They seemed like really good people,” Downey said. “Their intention was to tell a story honestly, without sensationalism. That was super important to me. They didn’t want to paint the families in a negative way.”

The fruit of the partnership is “The Florida Project,” which follows the summer adventures of 6-year-old Moonee, who lives with her mother, Halley, at the Magic Castle motel. The motel is managed by Bobby, portrayed by Willem Dafoe, whose performance is being mentioned for an Oscar. Several homeless families were cast as extras.

The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, has already won several awards in Europe and more are expected.

Bergoch’s mother, who lives in Orlando, told them about the homeless families who live in the string of pastel motels along U.S. 192 that were meant to offer inexpensive lodging for Orlando tourists.

Edgy stories are their specialty. Baker and Bergoch had collaborated on two critically acclaimed films: “Starlet,” about an unlikely friendship between two women—one young, the other old—and “Tangerine,” the story of a prostitute who falls in love with her pimp.

They began researching the homeless issue and came up with an initial story. But after spending time in Osceola County, Baker said, “we realized our initial script was ignorant.” The situation was far more complex.

“Early on, Mary was instrumental in helping us understand the politics and the situation better,” Baker said. “She was somebody who saw the potential in this film to bring about some change, to shine light on the issue.”

Baker and Bergoch bounced ideas off Downey and talked to the homeless, the motel managers and city officials. They reworked the script, striving to make it as accurate as possible.

“I want this film to be accepted by Floridians, to be looked at by people in social services who will see it as something they recognize as real and truthful,” Baker said. “I want to bring about change through awareness. That was very important.”

While entertaining his audience, Baker said he also wants to educate and motivate them to get involved in the issue.

“I base all my films in realism,” Baker said. “I use a documentary style that makes the audience think. We shoot it with hand-held cameras, and most of the cast were first-timers…all that lends itself to the realism.”

The film was shot on location, including surreptitiously filming the last scene inside Disney. Baker used Hope 192 as the location for the social service agency in several scenes. One of them reduced Downey to tears.

Actor Willem Dafoe, second from right, receives direction prior to filming one of the scenes for "The Florida Project." The fictitious Magic Castle motel in the background created a setting where homeless families found temporary refuge in the film's story.

Homelessness is especially difficult on children, Downey said. When someone with a child comes to Hope 192 for help, Downey said they give the child a new toy that they can play with while the adults talk. “It makes it a safe place for the child,” she said. “They’ll associate going there with getting a new toy.”

In the scene, when Halley and Moonee go to the social service agency, Moonee is given a Barbie doll.

“Moonee is playing with the Barbie doll, and Halley is complaining about her life,” Downey said. “I couldn’t stop crying. They had taken something that is so much a part of our culture as an agency, something so dear to my heart, and to see that on the screen was so powerful and humbling. It reaffirmed my calling of what we do at Hope 192.”

Although the characters and storyline are fictional, Downey said the message of the film and the ordeals faced by the families are emotionally true.

The homeless families used as extras got to see the film in an early screening.

“Their reaction was very positive. They felt it was accurate,” Baker said. “Their opinion was very important to me. I answered to them first and foremost. From an ethical point of view, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do them right. We’re in their lives, and they’re in our lives. We’re not leaving them behind. We’re still involved with them.”

Baker and Downey said they hope the film helps eliminate the stigma of homelessness and gives people insight into their lives.

Some people won’t have a lot of compassion for Halley, Downey said. “It is easy to judge her. She makes a lot of bad decisions.”

“Watch with your eyes open and with compassion, so you can see Halley as a child of God who is struggling and trying to do the best for her child, and Moonee, who is looking for the good and lovely in every day,” Downey said.

“It’s a message of hope. Look for the good and happy in every day,” she said. “I think that’s what the film is truly about.”

“The Florida Project” opened in theatres nationwide Nov. 22. The Florida Conference is sponsoring a screening of the film at the Polk Theatre in Lakeland on Dec. 8. To purchase tickets, click here.

--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville.

Editor’s Note: Part two of this series, scheduled Dec. 5, will take a closer look at the Community Hope Center and the work of Rev. Mary Downey.

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Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger!


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