When you see homeless people in the movies, they're usually part of a funny interaction or serve as a quick, somber reminder of just how hard life can be. Rarely are they -- or their stories -- given more than a few minutes of screen time.

That's partially what makes "The Florida Project" -- which film critics are already comparing to last year's Best Picture, "Moonlight" -- stand out.

The movie's main character is a six-year-old girl, Moonee, and her single mom, Halley, who live in an Orlando-area budget motel. Moonee and Halley are the "hidden homeless," Americans who don't have enough money to secure permanent housing but manage to avoid sleeping in shelters or on the streets.

The story mostly follows Moonee as she and her friends entertain themselves one summer with wandering adventures through the neighborhood. But the movie has a gloomier subplot where Halley can't find a job, faces the threat of eviction, relies on food donations to get by and is forced to deal with child protection services.

Although the protagonists are perpetually in a financial crisis, their plight is not the film's sole focus. It is as much about how they manage to form bonds with their neighbors, have fun and be happy.

Governing spoke with Sean Baker, the director and co-writer, about the making of the film and what he wants audiences to take away from it. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

For such dark subject matter, a lot of the scenes are joyful. What were your goals in portraying these characters’ experiences of poverty?

When I was doing research, speaking to the residents of these motels, their circumstances were very difficult, but they were still living their lives. They were still able to laugh. There was still joy. This is, you know, what makes us human.

So, when I see films that are covering this sort of subject matter and they’re weighed down in melodrama, it comes across to me as 100 percent untruthful and slightly condescending. It was very important to me to approach this in a way where there was comedy. I’m asking audiences to laugh along with these kids. I’m doing this because I want to reach a greater audience. If it reaches a greater audience, perhaps more people will be aware of this issue of the hidden homeless.

In terms of the research, how did you try to get those details right?

Chris Bergoch [a co-writer] and I took the time to interview and befriend people in the community -- residents at the motels, managers, local business owners and the agencies that provide social services to the homeless. It was really just about collecting as many stories and details as possible so that we felt comfortable writing a fictionalized screenplay. We had to get to the point where we felt we understood the world enough where we felt we were representing it in a proper way.

It seemed that Moonee was a little bit aware of her circumstances -- that she is in poverty, that she lives out of a motel and her mom struggles to pay for rent and food -- but not in the stark terms that the adult audience is.

Yes, definitely. It’s, of course, very subjective. We really don’t know how much a child absorbs or is aware, but that balancing act that we took while making this film was always about playing with exactly how much she would be aware of.


When child protection comes to separate Moonee from her mom, I felt conflicted about the government intervention. We’d seen her work so hard to protect her child and take care of her child. What were you hoping to accomplish in that scene?

That’s exactly what we wanted: conflict. I’ve heard audience members say, “Best mother ever. I wish my mom gave me this love. This is an injustice what’s happened.” I’ve heard the extreme on the other side, which is, “Thank god, child protection has shown up. They needed to get her out of there.”

I’m not trying to sway opinion one way or the other because that’s why we made her character flawed. We’re not sanctifying her; we’re making her human.

But I hope audiences will at least be mature enough to be empathetic. If they look at Halley’s situation, she was probably 15 years old when she had Moonee -- no formal education, no family support whatsoever, no father figure for Moonee, so no child support. She’s unemployable. She has a criminal record. So, she’s basically in a place where she has no choice but to turn to the underground economy, and she’s unfortunately a kid who had a kid. She might be street smart, but that’s it. She has no other choices, and she’s never had the opportunity to mature.

As long as people can see this, and then say, "I don’t condone her actions," perhaps "I can’t even comprehend her actions, but I at least understand why she’s been driven to this point," that’s my goal.

Is there a message that you want audiences to take away from the film?

It’s about putting that human face on the issue and removing the stigma. What we’re hoping audiences will do, if they love Moonee, is think about the real Moonees and the real Halleys out there and the fact that it’s not just the Orlando area that needs help. It’s a nationwide issue. Look into your own community because it could be happening under your nose, and you don’t know it.

If awareness is brought to it, stigma starts to be removed, and then hopefully people will be motivated to help. That’s all I can really do.