'The Florida Project' movie review — Magic from mayhem

A bittersweet picture of childhood on the skids

It's still early, but as of late October, "The Florida Project" is my favorite movie of 2017.

This exciting indie – made on a budget of $2 million — captures the magic and energy of childhood in a way that's so realistic that it often hurts to watch.

The movie follows Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a 6-year-old girl who lives with her young mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a colorful motel called The Magic Castle, located in the tourist heaven of Kissimmee, Florida. Moonee spends her days during summer break getting in trouble with her friends and keeping the motel's manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) on his toes.

 

The film's title comes from Walt Disney's original top-secret name for what would eventually become Walt Disney World, but it can also be taken literally because The Magic Castle motel acts as a housing project of sorts, with many of its rooms occupied by down-on-their-luck people who turn it into a real community.

Director Sean Baker stunned many with his 2015 micro-budget movie "Tangerine," which was shot exclusively using iPhones. That film, which followed lively prostitutes in California, was populated mostly with first-time actors and had a style that felt so authentic I had to make sure it wasn't a documentary.

Baker uses a similar style here, working with many rookie actors and even non-actors, and shooting the movie at actual Kissimmee motels to give it the same level of authenticity that's already become his signature. But unlike "Tangerine," "The Florida Project" was shot using 35mm film — with the exception of the film's fantastic final scene, which was shot on an iPhone for logistical reasons — which make it more pleasing to the eyes.

Moonee's life is anything but comfortable. Her mother is an impulsive and incredibly immature person who keeps their lives unstable due to her work as a grifter, exotic dancer and, when push comes to shove, a part-time prostitute. It's heartbreaking to watch this girl take part in her mom's schemes, panhandle for ice cream and subsist totally on bad food.

But this girl has a boundless energy that makes the movie a blast to watch. Moonee is a wild child, almost to the point of being feral. Actor Brooklynn Prince has only a few credits to her name before "The Florida Project" but her performance here is so good that it could earn her an Oscar nomination.

As the beleaguered but beloved motel manager Bobby, Willem Dafoe turns in yet another great performance and one that could also get him some attention come awards season. Dafoe is one of those actors that I feel is largely taken for granted. His career credits are as good as any actor alive, with outstanding work in every decade since the 1980s. And his turn in "The Florida Project" is as good as anything he's ever done.

Bobby is the benevolent surrogate father who watches over the wandering souls who inhabit The Magic Castle. He protects the kids from lecherous old men, maintains the motel's appearances, keeps secrets for his tenants when he needs to and even puts his own money up to help them when they need it. If you listen closely, you'll notice the sound of helicopter blades whirring almost every time Bobby is on screen — a nod to the eagle eye he keeps on everyone who stays at his purple-hued palace.

"The Florida Project" is a thoughtful, kinetic film that's as lively as anything you'll see on the big screen. It doesn't look down on its characters and makes no judgments about the lives they lead, which is refreshing for a Hollywood movie. If you see it playing near you, give your money to this gem of a film and enjoy the ride.

CLINT'S RATING: ★★★★★ (5/5)

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"The Florida Project"

Release Date: Oct. 6, 2017
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material)
Director: Sean Baker
Writer: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Stars: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe

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