In this movie about childhood that’s definitely not for children, “The Florida Project” depicts a 6-year-old growing up in the shadow of the Happiest Place on Earth. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
A poignant movie about childhood that’s definitely not for children, “The Florida Project” depicts a 6-year-old (the enchanting Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) growing up in the shadow of the Happiest Place on Earth. Moonee lives in a lavender castle with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and merrily runs around with her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), eating ice cream and giggling and imagining the sort of things that little kids imagine. (“If I had a pet alligator,” she announces at one point, apropos of nothing, “I would name it Anne.”)
But, though Moonee doesn’t really know it, this is no fairy tale: That castle, just outside Disney World, is a rundown budget motel, and Halley, who’s in her early 20s, is unemployed and struggles to pay the meager rent. Scrounging free food is a game for Moonee, but it’s a necessity; soon, Halley has to resort to more dangerous ways of making a living.
Movie Review ★★★½
‘The Florida Project,’ with Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones. Directed by Sean Baker, from a screenplay by Baker and Chris Bergoch. 115 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material. Opens Oct. 20 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.
Writer/director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”) tells us this story from Moonee’s point of view; we run in the Florida sunshine with her, seeing the motel and its surroundings as her grubby but inviting playground, finding the wonder in a Creamsicle-colored sunset and a magical night of fireworks. Fantasy and reality mingle everywhere here; note the street sign pointing toward “Seven Dwarves Lane,” and the way a grandmother asks her granddaughter, “Do you want to play with the kids from the purple palace?” And there’s even a kind prince/guardian at the gates: Bobby (Willem Dafoe, beautifully subtle), the hardworking motel manager, keeps a watchful eye out for Moonee and her friends, even when you can see he’d like to swat them away like flies.
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The beauty of “The Florida Project” is how Baker uses a cast of mostly inexperienced actors to tell a story that feels completely, utterly real: You feel as if you’ve slipped inside of Moonee’s enchanted world, while at the same time seeing the harsh reality of Halley’s. That contrast is devastating, right up to a final sequence that’s sure to break your heart in two. There’s no fairy godmother ready to save this mother-daughter duo; just dreams of, somewhere, a happier place.