'The Florida Project': Magical lives in the margins of society

In The Florida Project, unsupervised kids have spitting contests, run across four-lane highways, chuck rocks at abandoned houses, light fires, scam free food, and dodge scowling adults.

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s have a name for this wild and dangerous behavior: childhood.

And in fact the movie’s director, Sean Baker, has drawn on the past for part of the movie’s inspiration — all the way back to the Our Gang movie shorts, comical stories of Depression-era kids. Baker’s version of this is updated and expanded — adults are characters, too, and so is poverty. His movie is a slice-of-life look at a low-wage (or no wage) America, where folks live in $30-a-night motels, places where they’re rotated to different rooms to keep them from attaining residency status.

The Florida Project, though, dances deftly around kitchen-sink realism and instead looks at this pastel world through the eyes of characters too young to know, or care, that they aren’t rich (or that cheese puffs and waffles aren’t building strong bones and bodies).

They live in Orlando on the ragged outskirts of Disney World. It’s a world of pink and purple hotels (set at a place called the Magic Castle), curio shops fronted by deco spaceships and adorned with optimistic titles like Future World, and buildings in the shape of soft-serve cones. Little Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) don’t have money, but their clothes and sheets are clean, and their days are long and full of fun.

Gradually, though, Baker’s camera raises its perspective to the eye level of the adults, and the view is not so pleasant. Moonee’s mom (Bria Vinaite) is unemployed. She hawks knock-off perfume to tourists, and when that fails to pay the bills, she turns to even more illicit means of making money.

Most of the women are single, most have kids, few have husbands or boyfriends who help. The de facto man of the house is played by Willem Dafoe, the motel handyman who — in a platonic and often comical sense — functions as everybody’s husband, dad, or badass uncle. (He runs off a potential pedophile, identified as being from Cherry Hill.)

He’s especially good at figuring the rent — a complex equation that factors in money, means, and myriad moral considerations. This guy is a saint, or maybe a monk — it’s as if he’s doing penance for something, and maybe he is, as Dafoe’s performance suggests (and as later scenes imply).

His appearance is something of a concession for Baker, who likes to use nonprofessional performers. This served him well in Tangerine, his debut that was shot on an iPhone and featured trans actors. But here, a few actors with limited range are asked to do too much. Still, it doesn’t stop the momentum of this engaging, humane little movie, which builds to the moment when its internal worlds finally collide: Moonee’s self-willed magic kingdom and her mother’s less-hopeful reality.

Moonee, though, has the mark of a survivor.

“This is my favorite tree,” she tells a friend on one adventure. “It’s knocked over but it’s still growing.”

MOVIES

The Florida Project

    • Directed by Sean Baker. With Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, Christopher Rivera and Macon Blair. Distributed by A24.

    • Parent's guide: R (sexual situations, language).

  • Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
  • Playing at: Ritz Five, County Theater, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, AMC Voorhees, Ambler Theater.

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