Places we pass by on the way to somewhere else: A movie review

Representations of poverty can be very challenging since balance between romanticism and revulsion is extremely hard to achieve, whether it is in academic writing, travel promotion or cinema. Pristine, untouched spaces far from city life can be delightful to visit, but difficult to live in; especially if the “comforts” of modernity are kept as standards. These places tend to be featured only for their travel or cultural exoticism. The urban poor on the other hand are visible, and mostly treated with contempt for assumed reasons of their destitution. Whereas poverty is an open topic in the global south, wealthier nations have found effective ways of keeping their poor hidden. Periodically, some leak out on the streets accompanied by pets or placards soliciting donations or employment, while others effectively hide from the public glare.


Just last week, an online poster campaign urging citizens in Seattle (USA) to report tent camps of homeless individuals went viral online. “The teal-blue posters [intended perhaps to look like the tents themselves], bearing the slogan “See a tent? Report a tent,” urged Seattleites to use the city’s Find It, Fix It app — a mobile tool for residents to ask for utility repairs, animal control and other public services — to request that the city remove homeless campers.” reported a local newspaper. Campaigns such as these are not uncommon, poverty is not pretty! But the threats are not just about aesthetics, are they? Prosperous people are threatened by poverty and therefore quick to judge or dismiss the poor as wasteful, violent and a threat to their reality. There is a whole bundle of traits that are attributed to the poor or homeless, mostly with with little evidence or first hand experience.

Approaching the urban poor raises several issues. Because they are more visible than remote communities, unprotected by walls, their proximity to prosperity, the absence of resources and the additional stress of being under constant scrutiny for violations, are specific to affluent neighbourhoods the world over. The Lady in the Van, a 2015 film by Alan Bennett about a transient old woman (Maggie Smith) raises several critical debates about homelessness in the depiction of an unexpected bond that develops between the old woman and the home owner outside whose house she parks her van. The story is based on a real encounter between Bennett and Mary Shepherd, an elderly woman who lived in a dilapidated van outside his London home for 15 years.

Poverty stories

Poverty is not a single phenomenon of being penniless. There are, it can be argued, as many contexts of poverty as there are people. In fact it’s very definition (the poverty line being one of them) is fraught with controversy. Yet, once the label is applied, a whole range of images flood in to fill the empty space. In media, the lens with which a disadvantaged setting is approached guides its audience. Whereas Thomas Barnes created a wordless documentary of babies from four different cultures, Katherine Boo took us right into the garbage dumps near Mumbai international airport in her book about Dharavi. In City of God, Fernando Meirelles brings the Brazilian favellas through filming encounters with real characters. In any presentation, it is important to understand that a single story can only provide fragments of illustrations; and it is from these incomplete productions that we can be moved to create our own interpretations, especially when the presentations are compelling. Any display is essentially circumscribed within existing assumptions of the author, whether it is a photograph or a novel. The sense-making is ultimately our own, constructed around our unique positions, which, despite our imagined hubris, also remains incomplete, unfinished and partial. That is what life is: a story whose coherence and completeness is always an illusion.

Halley and Moonee outside Magic Castle

The Florida Project

The challenge of creating a plausible narrative is one that Director Sean Baker takes very seriously in his 2017 film ‘The Florida Project’. The task must have been even tougher because he chose to tell a story about childhood in the context of poverty through the children, a precarious subject since it is easy to falter between intended realism and inevitable romanticism. Baker skillfully negotiates the terrain by allowing you to travel among and eventually fall in love with the spunky six-year-old Monee, the protagonist of this film. By keeping the child and her friends as central characters, the film is able to obfuscate the unseemly side of their difficult lives. And this is how he (Baker) achieves his objective: without either displaying them in your face, or resolving them for your comfort. The Florida Project is a masterpiece in this regard. In my opinion, the film is flawless in its simplicity and so fragmented in its presentation that the viewer has no choice but to struggle for coherence, if in fact you do get to the end. Paradoxically, its cinematic ease is heavy with sharp-edged implications.

The story

Moonee is a precocious, spunky, six year-old who lives with her mother in Magic Castle, a three-story motel on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida. The buildings are painted in the loud colors of nearby Disney World. Magic Castle is the sort of place you would pass on your way to somewhere else, it isn’t a likely destination as we watch in the early scenes when a young couple land up after booking the run-down motel instead of one inside Disneyland!

The film follows its central characters, residents of the wayside establishment during one summer vacation: Halley, a sour and argumentative single mother of Moonee, whose presence before the camera is so artful that it’s hard to remain unmoved by her precociousness. There are her friends (followers, really), a bunch of regular kids, playing pranks on others during summer vacation. Clearly, she is their designated leader. Watching all the scenes from his managerial post is Bobby, played brilliantly by one of my favourite actors, Willem Dafoe. As the days pass, Halley, the mother finds it hard to make a living, and between the strip club and visiting clients, she is unable to come up with the rent. Since the story is presented through the children, the audience is protected from having to view any unpleasant exchanges.

Mostly Halley is shown hanging around the neighbourhood, treating her daughter as a fellow delinquent, because she seems like a child herself. When Moonee is not with her friends, she accompanies her mother, visiting buffet breakfasts, shopping for cheap jewelry (for sale at a profit) or selling perfume bottles to reluctant clients. Between burping contests and swinging steps, the mother-daughter duo share intense affection. The relationship is hard to describe because it transcends common themes and evades simple analysis. Although she is endearingly child-like, Moonee displays flashes of haughtiness, whereas Halley seems acutely vulnerable. This contrast is used to usher in the climax of the movie.

The children are adventurous and unafraid. In their escapades, Moonee leads the bunch through encounters bordering on dangerous. There was one moment in the film where I was sure that one of the kids would be hit by a passing truck or something. Their carefree explorations along the same length of the highway, is practiced, and there is no such accident. This is the moment in the film where an urgent and impending fear of a great loss is palpable, but the moment passes quietly. In their daily jaunts, the children manage to set an abandoned place on fire, scam people on the streat and tease adults going about their weirdness, which the audience experiences unmediated; through child-like mischief rather than malice. The children’s acting in these moments is particularly noteworthy.

By ‘respectable’ standards, Halley is a terrible mother. But when we watch her with Moonee, it is impossible not to see her as affectionate, caring and protective, as a good mother. This complexity is brought to a heart-breaking confrontation with Child Protection Services, and one is left with grave doubts about what is best for Moonee. For “her own good”, she stands to lose the most valuable relationship in her little life who is as precious as she is precarious. The film does not assist or comfort its audience. The encounters are left open for discussion. And that is what makes this film such a powerful story.

The presence of Bobby, the vigilant manager of the motel is another feature of the film that adds to its brilliance. He watches over the kids and the families without getting close or involved. Bobby too is a complex character, both hard-headed and endearing. He is in constant struggle with Halley about her rent, but fiercely protective of the children when he finds a strange older man in their midst. The film-world never looked so despairingly real.

From Masala Chai, the film gets an enthusiastic recommendation as a MUST WATCH! We welcome your comments,on the movie as well as on ur reading of it.


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