I have two types of movie going experiences. The first involves movies that capture my attention fully but which I often forget the next day. The second are those films that make me uncomfortable while watching but which stay with me for a long time after the final clip fades to black. The Florida Project falls into the second category.

A 2017 American drama film, The Florida Project (the early name for Disney’s theme park) follows the life of a six-year old girl (Moonie) living with her single mother (Halley) at the Magic Castle Motel, a run down extended stay residence in the shadows of Walt Disney World. Unlike the fairy tale experience of Walt Disney World, Moonie and her childhood friends live in the all too real underbelly of American society, barely able to survive without her mother having to rely on prostitution, theft and tourist hustles to make ends meet. In the midst of this heart-breaking desperation, there is nobility to be found, most notably in the character of Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle Motel (as played by William Dafoe). Bobby is protective and kind, even though at times his patience is sorely tested by Halley, Moonie and her friends. In the end, however, he cannot protect Halley from her bad decisions.

This movie is a must-see, if only to educate the viewer about the very real struggles that indigent Americans face and the powerful impact poverty and living on the edge have on children. There is another lesson too. Children need mothers and fathers. Fathers play an important role of being conduits to the outside world. If a father approves of a child, that child often has increased confidence in their ability to make it in the outside world. Also with two parents, children are more likely to have at least one adult providing discipline and structure, even if the other parent is more lenient and easy-going.

I often think of this movie (and at times will assign it to families) when I work with clients who have teenagers in the home and see me for family therapy. The teens with whom I work are generally very idealistic, believing that every one in the family needs to have an equal voice regardless of their age! While I believe it is important to listen to everyone’s voice, I also believe children and teens benefit from families in which someone is in charge. Families work best when there is a hierarchy in place. For me, it goes without saying that parents should  have the final say in important decision making. In The Florida Project,  Halley is so desperate to be loved by Moonie that she behaves like a six-year old child. It is embarrassing to watch. She provides no guidance, no role model and no discipline. Moonie and her friends suffer from this lack of structure — they come across to the viewer as wild, disrespectful of adults and unable to control their impulses.

The film has much going for it. Many of the stars in this movie had never acted before, giving their performances a convincing and real energy. The images are striking — as if the hot Florida sun makes all the colors more vivid and striking. The story itself unfolds slowly and in real time — it is hard not to wonder what in the world will happen to these characters. You “kind of” want them to succeed (they are, after all, flouting all the general conventions of middle class society) while at the same time having the feeling that something bad is lurking around the corner and that their luck will run out.

So if you are looking for a movie that will make you squirm but whose visual elements, thematic design and powerful acting will stay with you long after the closing credits, check this film out! You won’t be disappointed.