‘The Florida Project’ Explodes With Emotion

When Walt Disney started quietly buying land for Disney World, corporate documents simply called it “The Florida Project.” Filmmaker Sean Baker’s choice to use the same name for his new movie is at once deeply earnest and drily ironic in a manner that reflects the richness of his vision.

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Although it’s only minutes from Disney’s famous resort, few people would confuse the rundown Magic Kingdom Motel with Walt’s “most magical place on Earth.” However, for six year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and the other kids living there, the decrepit welfare motel is their own kind of enchanted kingdom. Largely free of parental supervision during summer break, Moonee and her pals run wild through the decaying, candy-colored buildings, scamming free ice cream, vandalizing abandoned buildings and causing endless trouble for Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel’s cranky but dedicated manager.

The inhabitants of Magic Kingdom Motel are on the last rung of the ladder before homelessness. Like her fellow tenants, Moonee’s young mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) is constantly scrambling to make the weekly rent that keeps them off the streets. Halley, barely out of childhood, is hardly what most would consider a good role model. She lies, cheats, steals, drinks, does drugs and hustles her way through life, thinking nothing of involving her daughter in her various scams. Still, there is no question of the passionate connection between the two.

The Florida Project vividly captures how people, for better or worse, insulate themselves from the suffering around them even when they occupy the same space. Just as visitors to Disney World casually ignore the poverty surrounding the beloved resort, the children of Magic Kingdom Motel gleefully escape into their own world of play. When the realities of the adult world finally burst into Moonee’s consciousness, the film builds to a stunning climax that is simultaneously haunting and unsettling in its emotional complexity.

Baker first achieved wider success with his 2015 feature Tangerine. What truly distinguished the dynamic tale of two transgender sex workers  was Baker’s ability to vividly express the inner lives of his characters through a lively visual style that the filmmaker self-described as “pop verité.” Baker’s new movie shows him expanding and deepening his empathetic vision.

Working largely through social media, the director has assembled an amazing cast of mostly non-professionals that includes actual residents of the motel where the film was shot. Willem Dafoe offers a vital touch of professionalism that perfectly mirrors Bobby’s position as the motel’s sole friendly figure of authority. Together with this fantastic cast, Baker has created an exhilarating and moving cinematic universe that explodes with the propulsive energy and emotion of real life. In their hands, Magic Kingdom Motel truly becomes a place you will never forget.

dylan skolnick

Dylan Skolnick lives in the East, but loves a good western. He can be found most days and many evenings at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, where he is co-director (www.cinemaartscentre.org).