‘Flor­ida Project’ tack­les dark side of liv­ing near a tourist par­adise

Amer­i­can dream just out of reach

Woonsocket Call - - Film - By ANN HORNADAY

'The Flor­ida Project," Sean Baker's ex­u­ber­ant, un­govern­able ode to the in­no­cence and re­silience of child­hood, takes place in a ram­shackle laven­der-painted ho­tel called the Magic Cas­tle, hard by Or­lando's Dis­ney World. Along with its neigh­bor­ing oxy­moron­i­cally named fleabags, the Magic Cas­tle evokes the Amer­i­can Dream, while deny­ing it at ev­ery down­beat, thread­bare turn. It's Amer­i­can Dream-ad­ja­cent, with such mid­dle-class ad­van­tages as fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity, leisure and cozy do­mes­tic sta­bil­ity tan­ta­liz­ingly vis­i­ble but al­ways just out of reach.

But that doesn't mean that the mar­gins don't pos­sess their share of en­chant­ment. As "The Flor­ida Project" opens, its spir­ited 6-year-old pro­tag­o­nist, Moonee (new­comer Brook­lynn Prince), is busy lead­ing her friends on a game of may­hem and mis­chief through­out the stucco com­plex, which serves as cheap hous­ing for her young mother, Hal­ley (Bria Vi­naite), and a hand­ful of folks who are strug­gling with ad­dic­tion, home­less­ness, men­tal ill­ness or sim­ple bad luck.

It's a harsh, hard­scrab­ble life, but Baker is de­ter­mined to in­fuse it with won­der and its own brand of pro­fane dig­nity. An in­de­pen­dent, pre­co­cious hero­ine in the tra­di­tion of Scout in "To Kill a Mock­ing­bird," Moonee nav­i­gates cir­cum­stances not of her mak­ing, but ones she nonethe­less makes her own by way of fan­tasies, games and the oc­ca­sional sweet­faced pan­han­dling gam­bit to cadge some ice cream from un­sus­pect­ing tourists.

Baker, whose break­out 2015 film "Tan­ger­ine" was filmed en­tirely on an iPhone, here trades that mod­est plat­form for lush 35mm film, fash­ion­ing a big, bright, im­prob­a­bly op­ti­mistic-look­ing can­vas for a story steeped in heart­break. The volatile, un­re­li­able Hal­ley, who re­sorts to pros­ti­tu­tion when she can't make the Magic Cas­tle's weekly rent, is lit­tle more than a kid her­self. Moonee's street hus­tles and stree­turchin scams may look adorably spunky now, but they sug­gest a far less rosy fu­ture down the road.

Baker doesn't su­per­im­pose those judg­ments. In­stead, he presents "The Flor­ida Project" as a re­spect­ful glimpse of a part of con­tem­po­rary life that is of­ten in­vis­i­ble to main­stream so­ci­ety. While the im­pulse is ad­mirable, it re­sults in a film that veers dan­ger­ously close to the kind of aes­theti­cized poverty porn that be­dev­iled such sim­i­lar en­ter­prises as "Beasts of the South­ern Wild" and "Amer­i­can Honey."

And, too of­ten, Baker over-di­rects Prince, Hal­ley and their fel­low young cast mem­bers, most of whom are non­pro­fes­sional ac­tors and whose per­for­mances are so keyed-up and the­atri­cal that the viewer can al­most hear the di­rec­tor ask­ing for an­other take, only this time with more. That over-the-top­ness stands in par­tic­u­larly un­flat­ter­ing re­lief com­pared to "The Flor­ida Project's" most rev­e­la­tory mo­ments, which be­long to Willem Dafoe, who plays the Magic Cas­tle's pa­tient, gen­tly pa­ter­nal­is­tic man­ager Bobby.

Although Moonee is the nom­i­nal hero­ine of "The Flor­ida Project," it's Bobby who emerges as the in­de­fati­ga­ble moral cen­ter of a movie that pulses with life, if not hope. Dafoe de­liv­ers his finest per­for­mance in re­cent mem­ory, bring­ing to lev­el­headed, un­sanc­ti­mo­nious life a char­ac­ter who of­fers a glim­mer of hope and car­ing within a world markedly short on both.

Two and one-half stars. Rated R. Con­tains pro­fan­ity through­out, dis­turb­ing be­hav­ior, sex­ual ref­er­ences and some drug ma­te­rial. 115 min­utes.


Willem Dafoe, left, the in­de­fati­ga­ble moral cen­ter of "The Flor­ida Project," and Brook­lynn Prince.

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