So close, yet so far from a Dis­ney life

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

In dif­fer­ent hands, the peo­ple knock­ing around the mauve-slathered kitsch uni­verse of “The Florida Project,” a high­light of the fall sea­son, might’ve made for a pretty aw­ful and ma­nip­u­la­tive dra­matic ex­pe­ri­ence. At-risk chil­dren run­ning wild and hav­ing too much fun to know why they’re hurt­ing in­side; a poverty-line mo­tel named the Magic Cas­tle, a cru­elly short dis­tance from Or­lando’s Walt Dis­ney World, run by a kindly, big-hearted man­ager; a pace of per­pet­ual mo­tion set by the 6-yearold with the reck­less mother at the nar­ra­tive cen­ter: It sounds like the stuff of vi­cious pathos.

But di­rec­tor and cowriter Sean Baker’s sixth fea­ture turns out to be a daz­zling mo­saic, alert to the ebb and flow of hu­man re­silience in the face of ev­ery­day crises. No hur­ri­canes here. No con­ve­nient, in­cit­ing dra­matic in­ci­dent and easy res­o­lu­tion. “The Florida Project,” which takes place along a mile or so of trin­ket shops, by-the­week mo­tels and junk food em­po­ri­ums along Route 192 near Dis­ney World, veers this way and that, chas­ing af­ter var­i­ous char­ac­ters. Only in its later stages does it go for the emo­tional jugu­lar. By then, Baker has earned it.

We come to know the di­men­sions and in­hab­i­tants of the Magic Cas­tle very well in “The Florida Project,” with an at­ten­tion to de­tail rem­i­nis­cent of what Hitch­cock brought to the dio­rama-like Green­wich Vil­lage in “Rear Win­dow.” The Magic Cas­tle is an or­di­nary three-story ho­tel, with rooms go­ing for $38 a night on av­er­age. (That’s still $1,100 a month; the poor get poorer, as the say­ing goes.)

Bobby, played by a supremely re­laxed Willem MPAA rat­ing: R (for lan­guage through­out, dis­turb­ing be­hav­ior, sex­ual ref­er­ences and some drug ma­te­rial) Run­ning time: 1:55 Opens: Fri­day Dafoe, has seen it all. He en­ters the story qui­etly, with­out grand­stand­ing, as ref­eree of a dis­pute in­volv­ing some of his long-term res­i­dents. From one per­spec­tive, there’s noth­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary about the mother and daugh­ter in Room 323. Hal­ley, played by splen­didly un­self­con­scious new­comer Bria Vi­naite, is a young woman who watches a lot of TV, fears no author­ity fig­ure, cadges the oc­ca­sional take-out meal from a fast-food em­ployee and ped­dles whole­sale per­fume in front of fancy ho­tels to cred­u­lous tourists. She also turns the oc­ca­sional trick to make the rent.

Her daugh­ter is Moonee, played by Brook­lynn Prince in one of the most stun­ningly as­sured screen de­buts since Ta­tum O’Neal in “Pa­per Moon.” She’s 6. Hers is a free-range child­hood in ex­tremis. For Moonee, the tourist he­li­copter hov­er­ing in var­i­ous scenes of “The Florida Project” is like a he­li­copter par­ent, fly­ing away, al­ways.

Baker lays out his film as a sort of pro­ce­dural, light on con­ven­tional plot­ting, para­dox­i­cally heavy on the glanc­ing, dis­arm­ing in­ci­dent. We first meet Moonee and her fel­low mo­tel res­i­dent pal Scooty (Christo­pher Rivera) sit­ting around, look­ing for some­thing to do. It’s the be­gin­ning of sum­mer. Pretty soon, Moonee and pals, perched on a nearby mo­tel bal­cony, are spit­ting on a parked car be­low. This ca­sual prank leads to a new friend­ship: The car be­longs to the grand­mother (Josie Olivo) of Jancey (Va­le­ria Cotto, heart­break­ingly sin­cere). The lives of Hal­ley and Moonee are lives typ­i­cally side­lined or ig­nored in Amer­i­can movies.

The kids pro­voke se­ri­ous mis­chief and, at one point, enor­mous fire-re­lated dam­age in Baker’s film. The vi­gnettes ac­cu­mu­late, as Moonee and com­pany heckle a nude sun­bather one minute and fast-talk their way into free ice cream the next. (Scooty’s suc­cess­ful pitch to the counter server: “The doc­tor said we have asthma, and we gotta eat ice cream right away.”) The ad­ven­tures, which Baker has said take a cue from the old “Our Gang” come­dies, carry an ex­hil­a­rat­ing un­pre­dictabil­ity, some­times sober­ing, some­times funny, and the moods change very quickly.

For an hour or so you don’t re­ally know where “The Florida Project” is go­ing; you’re more than will­ing, how­ever, to fol­low the short, sharp chap­ters of Moonee’s sum­mer and see where it’s all headed. The script, co-writ­ten by Chris Ber­goch, is shaped like a fun­nel. In the later scenes, Baker nar­rows the fo­cus to Hal­ley and Moonee’s im­per­iled, im­per­il­ing but hardly joy­less ex­is­tence.

There’s a sig­nif­i­cant visual flour­ish at the epi­logue that I’m not sure I buy. The de­ci­sion to re­vert to iPhone-like footage, akin to Baker’s tech­nique on his pre­vi­ous fea­ture, the Los An­ge­les-set “Tan­ger­ine,” is both a prac­ti­cal and an aes­thetic one, but it’s the one pas­sage of “The Florida Project” that feels off to me.

Else­where, though, shoot­ing on 35-mil­lime­ter film, Mex­ico City-trained cin­e­matog­ra­pher Alexis Zabe (a key col­lab­o­ra­tor on some ter­rific, dis­parate films, from “Duck Sea­son” to “Post Tene­bras Lux”) takes Baker in a new di­rec­tion. The film­mak­ing is ki­netic, but the cam­era moves se­lec­tively. Baker shoots the ac­tion the way Bobby keeps an eye on ev­ery­body. There’s a dash of Truf­faut’s “400 Blows” and “Small Change” in the movie’s recipe, along with the “Our Gang” vibe. Dafoe has never had a role this warm and sweet, and he plays it for low-keyed hon­esty. The kids and the adults, some non­pro­fes­sion­als, all be­come part of a bright pur­ple bee­hive.

Baker has used the term “pop verite” to de­scribe that bee­hive. Ev­ery minute, the movie runs the risk of soft­en­ing or fal­si­fy­ing its char­ac­ters. A more shame­less, show­boat­ing “name” ac­tor as Bobby would’ve in­evitably turned some of the man­ager’s scenes into cliches; ef­fec­tive, maybe, but fa­mil­iar and hol­low. Dafoe works a small mir­a­cle in the role. I love how Baker lets the movie’s benev­o­lent fa­ther fig­ure sidewind his way into the lives of his ten­ants. (There’s a great bit where Bobby has to put up with the kids hid­ing out in his cramped of­fice.) We learn only frag­ments about Bobby’s past in “The Florida Project,” along with Hal­ley’s. The present, alive and kick­ing, is enough for these peo­ple to deal with, and it’s more than enough for one of the bright lights in Amer­i­can cin­ema. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.


Willem Dafoe plays the man­ager of poverty-line ho­tel near Dis­ney World, and Brook­lynn Prince plays a ten­nant’s child.

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