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The Florida Project (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)

The Florida Project

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017)

Starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Mela Murder, Josie Olivo, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Sandy Kane, Karren Karagulian, Carl Bradfield, Terry Allen Jones, Aiden Malik, Jason Blackwater, Jim R. Coleman, Kelly Fitzgerald, Sabina Friedman-Seitz and Gary B. Gross.

Screenplay by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch.

Directed by Sean Baker.

Distributed by A24. 115 minutes. Rated R.

Screened at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival.

Kissimmee, Florida is the town surrounding Walt Disney World and Epcot, which decades of rabid travelers and ads have assured us is “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

However, when you get outside of the shadows of Cinderella’s Castle and Space Mountain, within a Caribbean Pirate’s cannon-shot of the Main Street Electrical Parade, things are not necessarily so happy.

Of course, most tourist towns have their bright and shiny objects, and then surrounding areas which are filled with kitschy tourist traps, low-rent souvenir shops and desperate people looking to somehow find out if their dreams are just the wishes their hearts would make.

Walt Disney World plays a very small part physically in indie director Sean Baker’s stunning new film The Florida Project. In fact, the actual park only appears in the movie’s final scene, which was filmed guerrilla-style on an iPhone. (Baker’s last film, the critically-acclaimed breakthrough Tangerine, was completely filmed on iPhones.)

Yet Disney World casts a shadow over everything and everyone involved. In fact, even the movie’s title is an obscure reference to the park. “The Florida Project” was the code name that the Walt Disney Company used in the planning stages of the theme park, so that they could purchase up large tracts of land in the area without raising red flags.

The Florida Project is more about life right outside of the Magic Kingdom’s magic, the world of cheesy shops shaped like giant oranges and wizards and pastel-colored cheap motels. It traffics in lodgings which try to exploit the local tourist traffic with names like Futureland, even though they are hopelessly retro and most of their guests have not much of a future. It is about the poverty, desperation and near homelessness which is just a crow’s fly from the vacation kingdom of the world.

Keep in mind, The Florida Project does not blame Disney World for its success and the problems of its neighbors. It is just an unattainable dream right out of reach for most of these people.

The Florida Project revolves around Moonee (the stunning six-year-old actress Brooklynn Prince), a little girl who lives with her mother in The Magic Castle, a cotton-candy-colored motel which once hoped to syphon off local tourists, but has long ago become a final haven for desperate people who are one more bad break away from homelessness.

Moonee is a sweet and good-natured girl. However, she is also out of control, because her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), while obviously loving and doting, lets her run wild. Moonee walks all around town with her friends, local kids who are also sharing hotel rooms with their families. They get into trouble, beg tourists for money for ice cream, talk back to adults, commit petty vandalism (although in one case, this inadvertently turns major), and basically waste away the summer days.

In the meantime, Halley is spiraling more and more out of control. Her unchecked anger causes her to lose her job as an erotic dancer, so she throws herself into a series of shady money-making schemes – like selling knock-off perfume, charging all-you-can-eat buffets at the resorts to tourist’s rooms, and eventually stealing some theme park wristbands – often taking Moonee along for the ride. All of this is done under the watchful eyes of social workers who may take Moonee away from her if she fails to provide and care for the girl.

Make no mistake, Halley is absolutely an unfit parent. Honestly, she is a child herself. However, she and Moonee have a true and loving bond. Is it really helpful for Moonee to be torn away from that?

The real adult in this situation is Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe, the first “Hollywood” actor director Baker has worked with in 18 years of filmmaking. Bobby is the slightly cantankerous, but surprisingly caring hotel manager who really goes out of his way to look out for his tenants. He takes a special interest in Halley and Moonee, who he recognizes as lost souls and essentially good people. Dafoe does a wonderful job of fitting in, just a face in the ensemble. It is his best acting job in years.

The Florida Project does not have a traditional movie structure, it’s more like a European film. It is just a hazy look at a summer of adventures. Director Baker has said that much of the children’s section was inspired by the old Little Rascals shorts, and perhaps that is the case. In one way it is an Our Gang for a more dangerous age. It is also one of the most affecting films of the year.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 22, 2017.

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