“The Florida Project” is an astonishingly fine movie about the vagaries and frolics of childhood as seen largely through the eyes of its pint-sized protagonists. It’s doubly remarkable because most of its cast, with the exception of Willem Dafoe and a few others, have had little or no theatrical experience. Director Sean Baker and his co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, advance the story in ways that at first seem random but gradually cohere into an enchanted vision. The movie is both unassuming and exalting.
Most of the action, such as it is, takes place in the first few weeks of summer in and around the budget motels neighboring Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Originally intended to accommodate the overflow of tourists, these motels have long since gone to seed. One of them, the ironically named Magic Castle motel, with its faded purple paint job, is home to 22-year-old single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), an ex-stripper with bright green hair, and her rambunctiously precocious 6-year-old daughter, Moonee, played by Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, who gives one of the best performances I have ever seen from someone so young. Moonee’s newfound best friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) lives across the way with her doting grandmother in the Futureland Inn. Mischief is the girls’ chief activity, and for a while they are joined by co-conspirators Dicky (Aiden Malik) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).
Because these children are living an aloof, hardscrabble life, it would have been easy for the filmmakers to romanticize their poverty, or present their plight in the direst of terms. But one of the movie’s many marvelous qualities is how offhandedly it avoids these pitfalls. Moonee and Jancey have the furious diligence of kids who are so caught up in the adventurousness of the everyday that, on some level, they don’t even recognize their station in life. They are too busy turning life into a kind of gambol.
They mooch money from tourists at a local ice-cream shack by claiming, with a straight face, that they need the drippy cones for medicinal purposes. They dance in the rain. They accidentally set fire to an abandoned crack house. On a lark, Moonee and the others turn off the main power switch in the Magic Castle, just to see what happens and, especially, to rile the motel’s manager, Bobby (Dafoe), whose gruffness is no match for his underlying decency. (He may oversee a dump, but he takes pride in his work.)
Not entirely without his compliance, Bobby becomes a surrogate parent to the children, in particular Moonee. He is always at odds with her mother; he knows that she is scamming tourists and turning tricks to pay the rent, on which she is forever behind, but his threats of eviction are tempered by his sympathy not only for her gumption to survive but also for Moonee. He realizes Moonee is set up for a difficult life. When, as is right and inevitable, the local child protective authorities finally step in, he is torn apart, although he tries not to show it. And so is Moonee. The look of deep confusion and fear that suddenly crosses the face of this normally pugnacious girl is heartbreaking. Dafoe has often been cast in roles that draw on the demonic, but here, he is as humanly approachable as he’s ever been. It’s a masterly, fully lived-in performance.
Baker’s previous movie, “Tangerine,” about transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles, was shot entirely on iPhones. “The Florida Project,” shot by Alexis Zabé, is filmed in widescreen on 35-mm film, and the expansiveness heightens the washed-out bubble-gum colorations of the motels and fast-food emporiums. Seen through the children’s eyes, this shabby, extended playground becomes a veritable casbah. And yet Baker never discounts the real hardship underscoring the children’s makeshift wonderland. In the film’s most emotionally complex scene, Moonee and her mom and Jancey, sitting in a swampy field, celebrate Jancey’s birthday by sharing a cupcake as they watch from a distance the fireworks show from Disney World.
Baker pays tribute in the end credits to “The Little Rascals” shorts from the 1920s and ’30s, and I suppose one could mistake “The Florida Project” for a transcendent episode from that series. But what it really reminded me of was “Little Fugitive,” the great 1953 independent movie, about a boy let loose in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, that influenced the French New Wave, or François Truffaut’s “Small Change,” in which childhood is comprehended, without sticky sentimentality, as an enraptured time of life. It is because Baker views the world without blinders that the moments of lyricism in “The Florida Project” are so piercing. When a rainbow shows up in the sky, it’s not just a rainbow; it’s a benediction. Grade: A (Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references, and some drug material.)