The Florida Project

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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

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