The Denver Post

“The Florida Project”: In seedy shadows of Disney World, a child tries to make a magic kingdom

- By Ann Hornaday Marc Schmidt, Los Angeles Times

★★★5 Rated R. 115 minutes.

“The Florida Project,” Sean Baker’s exuberant, ungovernab­le ode to the innocence and resilience of childhood, takes place in a ramshackle lavenderpa­inted 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

Egame 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 sweet-faced 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

Efor 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.

 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States