The Florida Project is bursting with fun, squalor and tragedy, and it justifies its end-title dedication to Hal Roach and the couple of hundred Our Gang shorts he produced.
It's shaggy, with what looks like rough-cut editing at times, and it's seemingly been released under its working title. Director Sean Baker's subject is the adventures of a passel of kids in Kissimmee, not so far from the expensive gates of Disney World, a minimum wage, subtropical holiday land. Baker positively blasts the screen with color and Florida sunsets flamboyant enough to dement a parrot. Consultants from Technicolor worked on this, and it shows. Baker's most recent previous full-length film, Tangerine, was shot on a cellphone; the visuals here are more than payback for the limits of that kind of photography.
The Florida Project repays a big-screen viewing to see the low-angle shots of berserk vernacular buildings. Giant oranges, ice cream cone-shaped frozen custard stands, a wizard's 30-foot-tall head emerging from a warehouse full of Disney knockoffs ... these images revive the feeling of being a kid driving by some highway curio shop, pleading to the parents to stop the car.
If all a kid needs to be happy is some fellow children, some parental attention, plenty of things to investigate, and lots of syrupy food to gulp down, we're watching a happy childhood here ... for a while. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), age 6 or so, is a long-term tenant with her mother in the grape-sherbet-colored Magic Castle Motel. It's an adventure exploring the roadside attraction highway lands, or running around with her new pal from downstairs. Everything is exciting: the sightseeing helicopters close enough to buzz the motel, the swamp nearby with the shopping cart sticking out of it, or the fluorescent-colored plastic goodies cramming the aisles in a local 99 cent store.
Baker knows the terrain better than the last director of talent to get this fascinated by Motel-land, Andrea Arnold in American Honey. Moonee is the kind of kid usually described as "endangered." Her unbalanced mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), a mouthy, strife-prone ex-stripper, is finally running out scams and is drifting toward prostitution. It's a clear-eyed view of that kind of life. Baker is respectful to it, instead of gaping at it all as if it were a national scandal.
The focus is on the kids, as in a crane shot of Moonee and the little terrorists she hangs with running through the balconies. They're Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and the third-grade boy Scooty (Christopher Rivera), a chronic mischief-maker who tries to play it urbane: "Relax, your daughter is safe in my hands." It's a gift to be a director so attuned to a kid's world. But Willem Dafoe is the real star, and it's one of the juiciest and most gentle roles he's done.
Dafoe's resemblance to a figure in a skinless anatomy drawing has given him plenty of villain roles. As Bobby, the saintly, suffering bastard who keeps order, Dafoe is like a new man. He's a multitasker, dealing with the Magic Castle's decay, bugs and sketchy tenants. He's sometimes aided by a grown-up son who has had enough of him.
Dafoe's comic exasperation is funny: the Frankenstein growl he emits when he realizes that the damn kids have broken into his office. Just watching Bobby smoking a cig out in the parking lot, wondering where it all went wrong, is fairly funny. And yet he's a serious working-class hero. Bobby gets the alert that a creepy turtle-man pedophile from Jersey is trying to chat up the kids, and Zorro himself couldn't have come to the rescue faster.
The young Brooklynn Prince sometimes gets high on her own supply of childish charm—she can pour cute upon cute —"I wish they made a fork out of candy," she says, eating waffles. Still, Baker's terrific kid-wrangling is an ornament to the neo-realistic tradition, with its heightened senses of a child's world and the joyful anarchy there.
Those who were raised in a bit of squalor themselves can agree that Baker has perfectly depicted the highs and lows of being a kid running wild. It's all fun and games until someone calls social services.