Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is another film­—along with the recent release Brad’s Status—that has restored my faith in the kind of filmmaking that I so desperately crave. This is a film about people and the struggles that some face in their attempts to live from day to day and the precious innocence of childhood. It’s a beautifully realized, and at times, painful, tale of the have-nots who live in the shadows of the affluent, in this case the Disney resort in Orlando, Florida (hence the film’s title). One thing I can guarantee is that after seeing this film you’ll never look at one of those low rent hotels where the residents live week to week in the same way again.

Willem Dafoe is the only name actor in the film’s cast. He’s Bobby, the manager of a flophouse hotel in the direct vicinity of Disney’s sprawling theme parks in Orlando. Bobby has his hands full dealing with the coming and goings of the mostly morally dubious residents of the motel. However, the film really isn’t about Bobby. It’s really about Moonie (Brooklyn Prince in an astonishing debut), a precocious six year old who’s left to fend for herself for large stretches of time due to the negligence of her ne’er do well mother, Hailey (Bria Vinaite).

Moonie forms friendships with other children in similar situations who also dwell in the hotel. With them she’s able to create her own universe that only she and her friends are privy to, a place that allows her to escape the terrible day to day reality of the life into which she was born. Unfortunately, her mother’s unpredictable and, at times, violent and impulsive, behavior constantly puts Moonie at risk. There’s a feeling that this can’t end well but the movie doesn’t dwell on that but instead puts its focus on the magical world that only children inhabit before the harsh realities of life manage to creep in and steal their innocence.

Baker has shot the film on 35mm film and in glorious widescreen. Interestingly, much of the film is shot from the level of the kids who inhabit the film and we feel that we’re right there with them as the mysteries of the world unfold around them. If there is a quibble to be made it would be the parting sequence during the film’s denouement, which feels at odds with the rest of the film. Having said that, Baker accomplishes with his camera something that is rarely seen in films of this type. It’s not an easy film to digest but the rewards the film offers the viewer make it more than worth it.

The Florida Project is not yet playing in the area, as of FOCUS’ press time.

Willem Dafoe & Brooklyn Prince in The Florida Project

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