“The Florida Project” is a sanguine portrait of childhood

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Courtesy of A24

Sean Baker should be a recognizable name in the independent film circuit. His claim to fame, 2015’s “Tangerine,” is a comedy-drama shot entirely on iPhones about two trans sex workers in Los Angeles. Gimmick (if it can even be called that; it’s shot better than most films shot on professional cameras) aside, it’s a story that plunges head-first into the lives of marginalized people outskirting a hub of affluence, humanizing the subculture by carving out a piece of the city it pays lip service to. Baker’s fascination with those cast aside by society continues in “The Florida Project,” where life on the fringes of the American dream is elucidated by a warm array of characters.

Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” (later syndicated as “The Little Rascals”) is indelibly tied to “The Florida Project’”s DNA. Dedicated to the memory of George McFarland, this film’s own Spanky is 6-year old Moonee, played endearingly by Brooklynn Prince. We’re introduced to Moonee on a humdrum summer day where she and her friends decide to pass the time with a spitting contest, which gets them in minor trouble when the car’s owner reports the posse to Moonee’s mother, Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite, whom Baker discovered on Instagram).

Halley and Moonee live in a brightly lavender budget-motel masquerading as a tourist resort in Kissimmee, FL. Their $38-a-night complex — the aptly named Magic Castle — is managed by Bobby, who is played by the wonderful Willem Dafoe in a touchingly nuanced performance. While he bears the marks of a grouch, he has an inclination to help, especially in the case of the unemployed Halley and her impish child. Of the film’s colorful spectrum of things to love, its only shortcoming was that there wasn’t enough of Magic Castle’s finest. When the supporting actor is on screen, he’s captivating, with a subdued tenderness that ranges from sweet and sympathetic to fatherly and stern.

The string of vignettes that comprise “The Florida Project” largely follow Moonee as she ventures outside of her cozy motel room, going on misadventures with the local rascals. “These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in,” she tells her new friend, the daughter of the woman whose car she spat on in the film’s opening sequence. “But let’s go in anyway!” she giddily gestures before running in to, once again, do something she’s not supposed to do. She’s an only child, yet she and mom get along more like sisters. They’re both kids in reality, one with a thorough understanding of the machinations of real life. Surely, Halley isn’t mother of the year, but the connection is there, and it’s strong and it’s effective.

It’s also shot on 35mm film save for one very particular iPhone-captured dreamscape, which cinematographer Alexis Zabe takes full advantage of. Zabe’s long, steady shots are picturesque; the crusty corridors of Magic Castle look gorgeous when framed regally, and sometimes nighttime fireworks from Disney World will illuminate a distilled moment of bliss in between financial burden. Most of the time, Zabe reveals, “it’s through the eyes of children,” underscoring not only Moonee’s height, but the adults around her’s shared fragility.    

The film markedly elicits comparisons to “Gummo,” Harmony Korine’s brazenly uncouth close-up of a Ohio city forced to recuperate from a devastating tornado. Like Korine, Baker mines humanity from the impoverished parochialisms of those disregarded as white trash. By comparison, “The Florida Project” is more grounded, its characters less violent, more humble, all the while still fascinated by the mundanity of an abandoned house set ablaze or a street brawl.

“Life on the margins” is a phrase popularly used to describe these characters’ situations: Indefinitely occupying motel rooms not designed for permanent residency, these characters are inches shy of homelessness (and the self-proclaimed happiest place on earth).

Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida is the crown jewel of American idealism, a paradise beaming with optimism and wonder and glee. “The Florida Project’”s namesake derives from the park’s working name, which Baker and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch co-opt to delve into the heart of America’s illusory promise of prosperity.

The screenplay’s reticent self-importance lets the film tell its story without bringing to attention its unflinching scrutiny, making apparent the systemic problems that bring our characters to their knees by framing them as real people in real situations. There are wonderful, heartbreaking moments in the film when the nodes simultaneously fire and all the seemingly unconnected slices become uniform, unearthing the grim realities that repudiate Moonee’s innocent lens of the world.

Verdict: “The Florida Project” is remarkably joyful and soaring with humanity from the genuity of its cast. Its characters teeter between desperation and an unwavering yearning for the simple pleasures of life in spite of their uphill battles, penetrating the deceitful underbelly of the American dream without losing grip of the joie de vivre that defines the film. Sean Baker’s determination at highlighting the recesses of poverty on the edge of Disney’s gilded utopia is unflinching and triumphant.

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