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Film review: 'The Florida Project'

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Whether following the lives of transgender sex workers in "Tangerine," an illegal Chinese immigrant in "Take Out," or a New York street hustler in "Prince of Broadway," director Sean Baker always brings a deep empathy to his vibrant stories of people living on the margins of society.

Baker's latest, "The Florida Project," is a sometimes funny and often sad story set amongst the "hidden homeless" of Orlando, Florida. These people are able to cobble together enough money to make daily or week-to-week payments for a room in a shabby motel, clinging to poverty but managing -- just barely -- to avoid living on the streets.

Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives at the purple-walled Magic Castle Inn, in the shadow of Disney World, with her well-meaning but dysfunctional mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite, a nonprofessional actor discovered by Baker through Instagram of all places). With mom busy doing whatever she can to provide for them, Moonee is left to her own devices.

The film follows Moonee during the endless summer months when she's given free rein to get into all sorts of mischief with her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).

The kids are frequently unsupervised, leaving the hotel's ceaselessly patient manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe, conveying innate goodness), to act as a guardian angel of sorts. He's always around, after all, so he watches over the children when he can and tries to make sure they don't get into anything too dangerous. Though he's not always successful.

It's through Moonee's eyes that we see this world, and we grow attached to her, though Baker's script (written with Chris Bergoch) is unafraid to portray her as more than a little obnoxious. In fact, she's kind of a terror, with an awareness that she's cute enough to get away with just about anything. Prince is wonderfully unaffected, delivering one of the most remarkable child performances I've seen in some time.

Moonee resides in the protective bubble of childhood, blissfully unaware of the precariousness she lives in every day. Its protection is mostly an illusion, capable of shielding her from the harsh realities that surround her, but not from their effects. And so the film builds up a subtle underlying tension as we begin to genuinely fear for Moonee and where she might end up if things continue on as they do.

But Baker focuses on the heart and humor of Moonee's life, while keeping us attentive to the systems that work to keep the less privileged exactly where they are. He brings an authenticity to this world, never condescending to his characters and seeing them with a clear-eyed sensitivity.

The film takes us into the sections of Florida that tourists rarely venture unless they've taken a wrong turn, or are looking for activities slightly less wholesome than what they'd find hanging with Mickey and his friends. The wealth of the Magic Kingdom hasn't trickled down here, and likely never will. Shooting on 35 millimeter, cinematographer Alexis Zabe gives the film a lovely pastel palette, and through his lens we always find the beauty in these environments.

The film's ending has proven to be divisive. Without giving too much away, the final moments are abrupt but satisfying, making an emotional sense and providing the story with some sort of closure. Breaking stylistically from the rest of the film, Baker's aware that certain events might have been unbearable if presented in any other way. The brief sequence has heart, humor, and sadness, and it feels exactly right.

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