The Florida Project catches gleams of wonder amidst the grind of poverty

Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto in The Florida Project. (A24)

In one of life’s little ironies of the sort that would make Dirk Gently or Bokonon say, “See? Nothing is coincidental!” your humble film reviewer is marking her golden anniversary of being a lapsed Catholic by finding a new home next door to a church. The sound of the carillon at inexplicable intervals, the shrieks of kids at recess and the odd waft of frankincense are evoking flashbacks of my own parochial school experience. One of those is the memory of being told that seven is considered, in the Church, the Age of Reason. You don’t have to go to confession before that, because you don’t understand the consequences of acting on your childish impulses.

That’s about where we find the tiny protagonists of Sean Baker’s much-lauded new movie The Florida Project. The most prodigious actress of her age since Quvenzhané Wallis won an Oscar nomination at age six for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Brooklynn Prince is a certifiable marvel channeling Moonee, the ringleader of a rabble of kids living on the brink of poverty in cheap, candy-colored Orlando motels.

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Moonee and her pals Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Dicky (Aiden Malik) are all about finding daily fun and wonder wherever they can in the seedy outer orbit of a Magic Kingdom that their struggling families cannot hope ever to bring them to visit. Having learned from mostly terrible parenting that being manipulative is a key survival skill, the kids encounter a surprising degree of success in wheedling ice cream out of gullible tourists; but they always share it. They seem happy enough, but theirs is a precarious paradise, a shiny bubble on the verge of popping at any moment.

Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe deliver excellent performances in the film.

We the audience can see their peril, but Moonee and company can’t. They’re not old enough yet to realize that staying in the lilac-colored Magic Castle motel forever, eating junk food and splurging on tacky plastic jewelry in the Dollar Store aren’t viable long-term life goals, or that their parents’ ways of showing love are often toxic. With the innocent bravado and the compulsion to test boundaries of little kids everywhere, they wreak mayhem just to see what will happen (if only a career in the sciences were in the cards they were dealt!). When a vandalism expedition to an abandoned condo complex spirals quickly out of hand, driving a wedge between some of the families, the delicate social web that staves off economic free-fall begins to crumble.

Impulsivity, both for good and ill, runs in these families – Moonee’s especially. Her feckless, rebellious single mother Halley, played fearlessly by newcomer Bria Vinaite, is a very tough character to like, despite her determination to give her daughter what she needs. Their connection thrives on a child-to-child level, but it’s frustrating to watch Halley refuse to adapt in any way to what society demands of her in order to become a responsible parent. The more we enjoy Moonee’s imagination and spunk, the more we despair for her future.

Unbeknownst to them, their bulwark against tragedy often takes the form of the outwardly grumpy motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who puts up with more than his share of verbal abuse from the renters while he intercedes for them with social services and firmly steers potential child molesters off the property. Maybe he sees his younger self in these wayward kids; we never really get a backstory for his understated compassion. But whatever his reasons, Bobby is the kids’ guardian angel – Moonee’s most of all, despite Halley’s repellent free-floating rage, habitual non-payment of rent and propensity to resort to sketchy ways of making money. Dafoe is excellent in the part.

For all the resourcefulness of Moonee’s gang, The Florida Project is by no means a life-affirming, feel-good movie about the wonders of a world seen through the lens of a six-year-old eye. It’s often infuriating, and a palpable sense of dread hangs over the entire narrative; it’s clear that this tale cannot possibly end well. That the axe doesn’t fall much earlier than it does, on more than one occasion, seems miraculous in itself. This reviewer walked out feeling queasy and unsettled; other viewers report breaking down in sobs at the end. Some critics are calling it a masterpiece. But it’s definitely not for everybody.