The Florida Project
THE FLORIDA PROJECT, drama, rated R, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
The bold orange paint of a tourist-town juice stand, the omnipresent greens of lawns and palms, and a bright purple hotel with lavender accents reflect the rainbow of human emotions in The Florida Project, a vibrant indie from Sean Baker (director of 2015’s shot-on-iPhone sensation
Tangerine). The scintillating spectrum extends to the stars themselves — Bria Vinaite, as a single mother who supports herself and her daughter by any means necessary, has hair that is dyed the preternatural cyan of freshly squeezed toothpaste. Like many of the principals, Vinaite had no experience in film before being cast as the defiant Halley.
Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the sturdy, dependable manager of the Magic Castle hotel, located a stone’s throw from Disney World and home, for a time, to Halley and other transient guests. The run-down establishment’s name is misleading, calculated to evoke the charm of Orlando’s primary destination. Dafoe is the headliner on the marquee, but the real stars are children: Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, Halley’s wild- eyed young daughter; Christopher Rivera as Scooty, Moonee’s best friend and partner in crime; and Valeria Cotto as Jancey, the ward of a kindly woman who lives in another spiffed-up flophouse on the outskirts of Disney’s domain.
The story unfolds in a kid’s-eye-view of gritty parking lots, traffic whizzing by, and swampy vegetation that strains to overtake the concrete and asphalt. Moonee and company traipse over broken glass and through alligator territory with unwavering fearlessness. They are children gone feral, as wild and unpredictable as anything that lurks in the underbrush. Baker finds poetic moments in their ungoverned mischief, capturing long summer days that pass without clocks. He also shows an inability to edit; one sequence after another details the kids’ wanderings along the margins of the adult world, to the point where The Florida Project sometimes feels less like a movie and more like an exhibit, with video on a loop.
The film has the structure of a drama, and an aura of impending doom hovers over the characters — particularly Halley, who employs her daughter as an accomplice in a series of scams and hustles to come up with money for food and rent. In a typical Hollywood version of this story, or even in moralizing indie cinema from the likes of Larry Clark or Neil Jordan, we would expect to see terrible consequences result from her choices. The hammer does come down, so to speak, but it’s not as devastating or violent as one might fear, and the movie ends on a dreamy, escapist note. This is bracing cinema, emotionally engaging and pulsing with life. — Jeff Acker
Wild child: Brooklynn Prince with Willem Dafoe