Alexandra Pelosi’s sixth film for HBO is the most potentially emotional, but it also flirts with an awkward line by using children in such a documentary exercise that, clearly, is crafted to make a political point. “The Motel Kids of Orange County” isn’t subtle about its message — poverty in the shadow of opulence — and much of it resonates quite powerfully. There are moments, though, when you can’t help but feel that the filmmaker’s lens is dangerously close to intruding on kids who, frankly, have enough problems without it.
Having spent much of her time on HBO’s behalf palling around with Republicans (“Journeys With George”) and evangelicals (“Friends of God,” “The Trials of Ted Haggard”), the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has chosen her location exceptionally well to compel a sobering look at America’s economic inequality. Orange County is not only one of California’s richest locales, but it’s home to Disneyland — a place many of the kids can see from their dilapidated rooms but have never visited.
Most of the parents are the working poor, forced to live in motels while they hold down minimum-wage jobs. Some of the kids attend Project Hope school, designed to continue their education while they lack a permanent address — a god’s-work mission inevitably plagued by issues regarding resources and funding.
These environs can be treacherous, with gangs and drug dealers nearby and advertised “hourly rates” at the motels. There’s seldom a safe place for children to play, and eviction is both a constant threat and a scavenging opportunity, given the stuff that’s abandoned.
Pelosi deserves credit for putting human faces on what has become a highly partisan debate.
Along the way, the filmmaker captures some genuinely heartbreaking moments. The most painful comes near the end, when a young girl gets sick at school and her father has no gas money to pick her up.
Yet the camera lingers on that tearful face past the point of comfort, until you wish it would cut away for her sake, not the viewers’. In that sequence and others, “Motel Kids” evokes a periodic sense of unease in the nebulous space between wanting to illustrate a worthy point and how to go about doing so when children are involved.