There’s magic in the air in “The Florida Project,” and it’s not just because of the film’s setting, in Orlando, Florida, in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom.
Sean Baker, the film’s director and co-writer, has created something miraculous here, a heartbreaking and beautiful ode to childhood and the unflappable resilience of youth. Baker’s compassion for his characters shines and illuminates their lives even as we watch them fumble down a tunnel of darkness. “The Florida Project” sings, and it’s the best movie of the year.
The story is set at the Magic Castle, a decidedly non-magical motel just around the corner from Seven Dwarfs Lane. The exterior is painted a garish shade of purple and a room will run you $38 a night; there’s a discount for weekly rates. Most of the motel’s occupants are long-term renters, living there because they’re running or hiding from something or they just can’t get their act together.
In this desolate place we meet Moonee (excellent newcomer Brooklynn Prince), about age 6, and her friends, Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera). They’re at the age when you can make anything fun, and they entertain themselves for the summer by causing mischief around the hotel, spitting off the second-floor balcony, sharing ice cream cones and, in general, just being kids.
Halley (Bria Vinaite, also stunning) is Moonee’s mom, and while she loves her daughter, her lifestyle is the very definition of “unfit mother”: she exposes Moonee to alcohol and drug abuse, larceny, violence and other unsavory elements, and turns tricks when Moonee is just a room away.
Bobby (Willem Dafoe, never better) is the property manager and something of a father figure who looks over everybody at the Magic Castle. It’s his job to keep the place running, and he’ll extend a bit of leniency on rent, but he’s not there to give anyone a handout. It’s a role that could either be played as an overly soft caretaker type or a tough-as-nails, hard-nosed authoritarian, but Baker and Dafoe find the right balance of realism and heart to make him human without turning him into a saint or a villain. He’s just a guy looking to get by like everyone else.
And at the Magic Castle, life goes on. There are arguments and fights and the cops get called, but there are good times, too, such as a fireworks show or a gathering to watch a nearby condo complex go up in flames. There’s a real sense of community, fractured though it may be, among the tenants, and Baker identifies the complex bond among a group of people just scraping to get by.
Baker — whose last film was the wild, colorful, iPhone-shot “Tangerine” — explodes here, and presents some glorious widescreen imagery that gives the film an unexpected visual pop. (Props to cinematographer Alexis Zabe.) And where other filmmakers might point fingers at or taunt subjects in a film like this — Harmony Korine and his freak-show tendencies come to mind — Baker’s affection for his characters gives “The Florida Project” a real, live-beating heart at its center.
He’s able to capture the essence of Florida and its trashy magnificence, as well as the transient nature of life mere footsteps outside the most magical place on Earth. The film packs an emotional wallop without wallowing in sentimentality, and it never cheapens itself, right up through its transcendent finale. It’s one of the most effective, honest portraits of childhood you’ll ever see, and a touching, poignant snapshot of American life in 2017. It’s more than just magical. It’s majestic.
‘The Florida Project’
Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material
Running time: 115 minutes