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story.lead_photo.caption Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) are largely without adult supervision in Sean Baker’s gritty The Florida Project.

Sean Baker's film opens with a depressing scene of small child misbehavior: A group of wild-eyed 6- and 7-year-olds cross the street from their seedy Orlando, Fla., residence motel, The Magic Castle, and entertain themselves sitting up on the second floor balcony of an adjoining place, spitting down at a car beneath them in the parking lot. That is, until the car's owner, a fierce woman named Stacy (Josie Olivo), comes out to intervene, and the kids flip her off and cruise in a fit of naughty giggles, vamoosing the scene of the crime.

It seems exactly the kind of thing that would happen to kids if their parents were too drunk, not present or too lazy to watch out for them. Here, this is only partly true: When eventually we meet these missing parents, we begin to get a much fuller picture of how this particularly troubling ecosystem has evolved, even after Stacy's young daughter, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), goes on to befriend the crew, lead by the indomitable Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), a little girl prone to speak in saucy adult-ese. ("Your daughter is safe in our hands," she assures a disbelieving Stacy.)

The Florida Project

88 Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Mela Murder, Aiden Malik, Josie Olivo, Sandy Kane, Macon Blair

Director: Sean Baker

Rating: R, for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

The kids live with their parents in rental rooms (decidedly not residences, as each family has to spend a couple of nights a month at a different place in order not to violate Florida laws about such matters). It's all hobbled people trying (or not) to make ends meet and living all too painfully close to the world of make-believe, where well-to-do families get to blow thousands of dollars on Disney fantasy vacations. Meanwhile these kids have to make do with a lot of idle time in the summer, an insane amount of freedom and, often enough, a bag of vending machine graham crackers for dinner.

Notably, however, Baker has no interest in making a screed against neglectful parents, poor-shaming these bedraggled families as somehow the agents of their own destruction. Many of the parents we see living in the motel are forced to leave their kids with other parents precisely because they have to work long, drudging hours, for minimum wages at the nearby fast food venues, tourist traps and dollar shops that line the avenues in the dim glow of the all-powerful Mouse Kingdom.

Some of these parents work admirably difficult gigs and yet still manage to spend quality time with their kids, not letting them fall into complete wildness -- Dicky (Aiden Malik), the obnoxious leader of the spitting crew in the opening scene, is actually grounded for that incident a good portion of the film.

Eventually, Baker's camera settles more firmly on Moonee, a sweet-faced cherub with a wild streak -- and enough attitude for an entire schoolyard. She lives with her young, equally scornful and mincing mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley's a bit rougher and more morally loose around the edges than some of the other parents like. She's loud and brassy, quick to make a scene to cover up any bare parts of her emotional psyche. In a similar fashion she's covered her skin in complex tatts.

Moonee spends most of her time kicking it with her friends, including Scooty (Christopher Rivera), the son of another single mother, Ashley (Mela Murder), who works at a fast food place and sneaks them all free food when she gets a chance, as they run various scams on unwitting tourists, trying to con them out of ice cream money. But after one particularly bad and dangerous caper pulled off by the kids, which results in arson, Ashely yanks her child out of Moonee's orbit, to the child's disappointment and Halley's vengeful ire.

Holding it all together, such as he can, is motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), a surprisingly spry and kind-hearted man, who spends his days trying to fix broken appliances, clean out gutted rooms and, endlessly, dealing with the deception and lies of adults who try hard to give him the runaround. To Bobby's credit, even if the place isn't exactly a bastion of well-maintained tranquility, his generous influence keeps the horror that much further from the residents' heels, and under his ever-watchful eye, the kids are at least safe from predators outside their own families.

The trouble is, when you have desperate people, putting their energy into finding twisty angles, you end up with a lot of heartbreak.

Unbeknownst to Moonee, as formidable a child as she is ("Yeah, mom you're a disgrace" she coos at one point to a giggling Halley), she is still too young to put the pieces together, as it becomes increasingly clear just what Halley is choosing to do in order to make her rent -- beyond scoring a crate of cheap perfume and hawking her knockoff wares in the parking lot of a fancy resort. The ending of the film, a moment of sheer pounding heartbreak entirely reflected on Moonee's young face, will stick in your craw like a jagged potato chip.

Of course, setting the film on the closest outskirts of the "Magic Kingdom" could easily have come across as too preciously on-the-nose, an Oliver Stone-like heavy conceit about the proximity of haves to the eternal have-nots, but for Baker's tremendously empathetic sensibilities. Our first takeaway from these marauding kids might have them as incorrigible brats, but the more time we spend with them, and their families, the more our sympathies shift firmly in their direction. It's impossible not to see what they are up against, and how hopeless a plight it must be for these heartbroken parents not to be able to provide a stable, safe upbringing.

No one is sainted here, no one, other than Bobby, really sticks a neck out for anyone else -- though the natural day-care support between working parents and stay-at-homes is encouraging -- but by the end of the film, with Halley facing some of the worst consequences for her horrific choices, we are no longer granted the ability to turn away and hide behind the idea that these downtrodden parents are somehow less diligent or caring about their kids than those of us on the other side of this awful economic picket fence.

Motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) confers with precocious 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in The Florida Project.

MovieStyle on 12/08/2017

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