‘Flor­ida Project’ an ex­quis­ite heart­breaker

The Mercury News Weekend - - A+E - By Lind­sey Bahr

Not too far fromthe gates of the Walt Dis­ney World Re­sort, where fam­i­lies are promised “en­chanted es­capes” and “fun” and “magic” and where day tick­ets start at a cool $99 a per­son, there’s a dis­count mo­tel called the Magic Cas­tle.

It’s painted in gar­ish shades of laven­der and amethyst. The ice ma­chine is bro­ken. The washer and dryer of­ten are, too. It costs $38 a night. And it is home for a young mother, Hal­ley, and her 6-year- old daugh­ter, Moonee, in di­rec­tor Sean Baker’s “The Flor­ida Project,” a tran­scen­dently beau­ti­ful, funny, heart­warm­ing (and heartwrench­ing) tale of child- hood poverty.

This is Kis­sim­mee, Flor­ida, and it is less than 10 miles away from that fairy­tale prom­ise of Dis­ney. But it might as well be on an­other planet.

Not that Moonee no­tices. Played by the impressive new­comer Brook­lynn Prince, Moonee ex­ists in a world of her own

— a charmed child­hood dream­scape of free­dom and friends and dev­il­ish fun and col­or­ful build­ings shaped like or­anges and soft-serve cones.

Moonee is not an an­gel — quite the op­po­site. She’s kind of a ter­ror. She is not well-be­haved or po­lite or def­er­en­tial to adults, and she does some truly bad things. But you can’t help but fall in love with her. She is un­mis­tak­ably her age, which Baker never con­ceals or glosses over or ex­ploits for mawk­ish story tricks.

Young child­hood is so hard to get right in the movies. Chil­dren in films are pawns that sel­dom feel true — ei­ther too po­etic or per­cep­tive or cute to be be­lieved. But Baker and his co-writer, Chris Ber­goch, do get it right with Moonee and her friends. It feels like you’re watch­ing a doc­u­men- tary at times.

As far as Moonee is con­cerned, things are good at the Magic Cas­tle. She doesn’t know that she lives on the brink of poverty, or that her­mother— played by an­other ter­rific new­comer, Bria Vi­naite — might not be look­ing out for her best in­ter­ests all the time. All she knows is she can run to the back al­ley of a diner to get free pan­cakes from her friend’s mom and talk strangers into giv­ing her money for ice cream when­ever. She knows that her mom is fun and loves her and that she is safe enough to not ques­tion her own safety.

It helps that the kind and em pa­thetic mo­tel man­ager, Bobby( Will em Dafoe ), picks up the su­per­vi­sions lack and keep san eye onMoonee and her friends. He is a thank­less fa­ther fig­ure to all the bor­der­line­home­less ten­ants of the mo­tel. And Dafoe’s warm and gen­er­ous per­for­mance is sim­ply as­ton­ish­ing. It’s not one you’ll soon for­get (although it might make you for­get some of the creeps he’s played over the years).

Com­ing off of the vi­brant “Tan­ger­ine” (a tale of trans­gen­der pros­ti­tutes in Hol­ly­wood), Baker has out­done him­self with “The Flor­ida Project,” which will have your emo­tions run­ning the gamut and you run­ning back to the ticket counter for one more view­ing.

It also might make you think about those who live near the poverty line, the chil­dren they have and the lives they lead and the con­se­quences and ever-present fear of one­missed pay­ment. Be­ing poor is nei­ther as dour nor ro­man­tic as the movies gen­er­ally might have you be­lieve.

Thank good­ness, then, for “The Flor­ida Project,” a candy- col­ored fairy tale on the wrong side of the tracks that knows that even though the Dis­ney fences are high and the prices steep, the end- of-night fire­works show is for any­one who takes amo­ment to look up at the sky.


Willem Dafoe, left, plays a mo­tel man­ager and Brook­lynn Prince is a 6-year-old ten­ant in “The Flor­ida Project.”


Christo­pher Rivera, left, and Brook­lynn Prince play friends in “The Flor­ida Project.”

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