Child­hood’s end

MPAA rat­ing: R (for lan­guage through­out, dis­turb­ing be­hav­ior, sex­ual ref­er­ences and some drug ma­te­rial) Run­ning time: 1:55

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Justin Chang

is dis­played achingly real in “The Florida Pro­ject,” a story filmed in the shadow of Walt Dis­ney World and re­plete with as­ton­ish­ing per­for­mances from young ac­tors drawn from Cen­tral Florida.

All child­hoods must come to an end, few of them as pierc­ingly as the one in “The Florida Pro­ject,” Sean Baker’s raw, ex­u­ber­ant and ut­terly cap­ti­vat­ing new movie. The child in ques­tion is a wild and ir­re­press­ible 6-year-old girl named Moonee, played by a star­tling dis­cov­ery named Brook­lynn Kim­berly Prince (of Win­ter Springs).

Re­mem­ber and cher­ish that name, not least for its play­ful sug­ges­tion of roy­alty: Moonee is very much the princess in this con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can fairy tale, and her king­dom is the Magic Cas­tle, a sprawl­ing, three-story mo­tel not far from an­other Florida pro­ject called Dis­ney World.

With its bright pur­ple ex­te­ri­ors and dis­count fairy-tale trap­pings, the Magic Cas­tle is one of sev­eral tacky knock­off inns that have sprung up in that theme park’s colos­sal shadow. It’s a place where dashed hopes dwell side-by-side with er­satz dreams, where drifters and strag­glers, moms and dads rent rooms for $38 a day from a hard-work­ing man­ager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe, never bet­ter). The park­ing lot bus­tles with ac­tiv­ity, whether from the Chris­tian re­lief work­ers who show up to hand out baked goods or the noisy brawls that fre­quently erupt on hot sum­mer nights.

Like the vi­brantly seedy stretch of Hol­ly­wood that Baker ex­plored in “Tan­ger­ine,” his 2015 com­edy about the friend­ship be­tween two trans­gen­der pros­ti­tutes, the Magic Cas­tle is a har­row­ing world unto it­self, one that in­evitably breeds tough­ness and res­ig­na­tion in those who call it home. It’s the kind of des­ti­na­tion that most tourists and most film­mak­ers would typ­i­cally steer clear of, but Baker, who wrote the script with Chris Ber­goch, is de­cid­edly not like most film­mak­ers.

Scene by scene, “The Florida Pro­ject” as­sem­bles one of the most in­fec­tious and thrillingly alive portraits of child­hood I’ve ever seen.

By fus­ing the cam­era to Moonee’s wide-eyed gaze, Baker al­lows us to per­ceive this gaudy bar­gain-base­ment won­der­land the way she does, as a realm of gen­uine en­chant­ment. Up and down the stairs we go, rac­ing after Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christo­pher Rivera, of Kis­sim­mee), who lives just one floor down, and Jancey (Va­le­ria Cotto, of Daven­port), a new girl from a nearby inn called Fu­ture­land.

With rap­tur­ous aban­don, they turn the Magic Cas­tle into their play­ground, spilling ice cream in the lobby, trig­ger­ing a power out­age and gen­er­ally mak­ing the kind of mis­chief that their guardians are too busy or too ne­glect­ful to no­tice.

None is more ne­glected than Moonee, a pint-sized hu­man whirl­wind who’s at once im­pu­dent and com­pletely ir­re­sistible and wily enough to know it. She’s al­ready mas­tered the art of the hus­tle, hav­ing been well trained by her mom, Hal­ley (Bria Vi­naite), a 22-year-old un­em­ployed strip­per. Early on, the two seem to be just about scrap­ing by, sell­ing bot­tles of cheap per­fume to tourists out­side the nicer ho­tels in the vicin­ity, and sneak­ing free food out the back of the Waf­fle House where Scooty’s mother (Mela Mur­der) works.

With her chest tat­toos and lip piercings, Hal­ley seems al­most cal­cu­lated to draw the viewer’s snap judg­ments, but what makes her such an ap­palling mother — to call her “un­fit” would be char­i­ta­ble — isn’t her ap­pear­ance but her at­ti­tude. She’s as much of a child as Moonee is, and Vi­naite, an­other sen­sa­tional new­comer (Baker found her on In­sta­gram), plays her with a jaw-jut­ting de­fi­ance that can flare, in an in­stant, into spite­ful rage.

Hal­ley is one of those lost souls who have long since de­cided there’s no point in be­ing kind or gra­cious in a world that is so com­pletely set against you. Be­fore long she’s fast run­ning out of friends and fa­vors and must take in­creas­ingly des­per­ate ac­tions to en­sure her and Moonee’s sur­vival.

It’s the ten­sion be­tween hard­scrab­ble re­al­ism and buoy­ant fan­tasy — and the un­der­stand­ing that they are both, in fact, vi­tal as­pects of the same ex­pe­ri­ence — that makes “The Florida Pro­ject” so pow­er­fully un­re­solved. An­other film­maker might have stum­bled into the trap of ro­man­ti­ciz­ing his char­ac­ters’ poverty, but Baker has an un­usual abil­ity to keep con­tra­dic­tory moods, ideas and per­spec­tives in bal­ance.

Late in the film, he strikes a note of awe when he fol­lows Moonee and her friends into a nearby field of graz­ing cat­tle — an in­ter­lude of such lush, dream­like po­etry that you’re al­most taken aback when the ruth­less, un­sen­ti­men­tal logic of the story re­asserts it­self.

That hon­esty finds a heartrend­ing echo in Brook­lynn’s per­for­mance. Be­neath Moonee’s beam­ing in­no­cence we can sense buried lay­ers of sus­pi­cion and melan­choly, as if she were partly aware of the cruel truths un­fold­ing just be­yond her field of vi­sion. In one of the movie’s most res­o­nant, ca­su­ally re­veal­ing mo­ments, Moonee mur­murs, “I can al­ways tell when adults are about to cry.”

That might be an­other way of say­ing that she can see the end­ing com­ing, though I’m not sure how any­one could. In its fi­nal mo­ments “The Florida Pro­ject” makes an as­ton­ish­ing, lyri­cal leap, one that con­firms my sense that Baker is not just an un­usu­ally ob­ser­vant film­maker but also a full-fledged magician, a prac­ti­tioner of the sub­lime. He has ven­tured into a world that few of us know and emerged with a mas­ter­piece of em­pa­thy and imag­i­na­tion.


Va­le­ria Cotto, left, of Daven­port, and Brook­lynn Prince of Win­ter Springs are shown in a mem­o­rable scene from “The Florida Pro­ject.” The movie filmed last year near Walt Dis­ney World.

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