The Florida Project, one of 2018’s Oscar & Golden Globe frontrunners for best picture, is more than just a cinematic story centering on a motel in Florida. This emotional storytelling masterpiece invites viewers to contemplate some of the complex ethical dilemmas social workers confront every day. While social workers don’t appear in the film until its final scenes, from the very beginning, viewers are given an intimate glimpse of the life situations that arise in the field of social work practice with impoverished and socially marginalized populations.
The film centers on a six-year old girl named Moonee, who is living with her 20-something single Mom, Halley, in an extended stay motel in Orlando. This living situation is precarious, as the budget motel is not legally permitted to have permanent residents. With no formal employment, Halley struggles to pay the weekly rent, and the motel manager, Bobby, makes efforts to err on the side of the law by requiring that Moonee and Halley frequently change rooms, and stay elsewhere at least once a month. Moonee, a precocious child who spends her days inventing her own fun with peers living in similar conditions nearby, is caught in the crux between life with an unstable young mother who loves her but can hardly provide for her, and the intervention of child protective services to safeguard her welfare.
Social workers viewing the film will undoubtedly empathize with each of the masterfully written and portrayed characters, all doing what they can to get by on the fringes of society. The film presents the many facets of each of its characters, as well as the systemic issues of social inequality that impact their lives.
Halley is unemployed, and presumably, receiving some form of welfare that barely makes ends meet. The single mom is covered in tattoos and piercings. She smokes and drinks and uses drugs, and has a fierce temper. We learn that Halley ran away from home at a young age with hints of past trauma, and she had Moonee as a teenager with no family support. In her struggle to provide for her child, she dabbles in crime – selling wholesale perfume on the street to make rent. But in a time of desperation, she turns to prostitution – soliciting clients on a website, and allowing them into the hotel room she shares with Moonee.
Moonee has little idea of the legal and ethical implications of her mother’s situation, but enjoys spending time with Hayley when she can. Sometimes, spending time with her mom means a day of work selling perfumes on the street. Moonee doesn’t always know where her next meal is coming from, but she has a roof over her head and a mother who loves her. But Moonee is often left unsupervised, nearly neglected by her mother. More than once, Moonee has been left unprotected in a dangerous situation.
Bobby, the motel manager, does his best to look out for Moonee and maintain a friendly professional relationship with Halley, while trying to repair problems with his son and keep the hotel afloat. When he learns of Halley’s sex work, he decides to call protective services, hoping to ensure Moonee’s safety. And so, the social workers come to remove Moonee from her mother’s care.
The Florida Project expertly portrays the lived realities of these socially marginalized and vulnerable characters, and the difficult role of child welfare workers in child removal proceedings. The film offers an in-depth view of the events and decisions that lead to a pivotal moment in its characters’ lives, and illustrates the multi-level, multi-dimensional factors contributing to the dire circumstances of a mother and her daughter living in poverty. It ultimately presents viewers with a heartrending ethical dilemma many social workers face every day – how to decide what is in the best interest of a child in a complex social reality.
This film is highly recommended for social workers! Social work viewers who enjoy The Florida Project should also check out Tangerine, an earlier film by the same director, Sean Baker, depicting the lives of trans women of color in Los Angeles.