The gritty side of life centered at a seedy motel near Disney Word in Orlando, Florida, is depicted with pathos and humor in director Sean Baker’s film, showcased at the 2017 New York Film Festival and also in commercial release. The motel in “The Florida Project” is called the Magic Castle, but the only thing magical in the movie is the way Baker, working from the screenplay he wrote with Chris Bergoch, puts upsetting ingredients together to make a compelling story.
At the core is six-year-old Moonee, played by captivating Brooklynn Prince, who makes Moonee mature beyond her years. She has to be, as her mom, Haley, played by the wonderful Bria Vinaite, is a wreck. She hustles any way she can, cons anyone she has to and expletives pour from her mouth in a steady stream. Moonee, who loves her mother, must cope with all of this. She does so by having adventures with two kid pals, one a boy, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), the other a girl named Jancey (Valeria Cotto). The children make their own little world.
Haley, always pressed for money, runs the risk of having authorities want to declare her an unfit mother because of her behavior and take Moonee away. Haley’s life is that tenuous and tragic.
Willem Dafoe has a solid role as the manager of the Magic Castle, and he does his best to be helpful to Haley and Moonee, but his patience is perpetually tried. He wants to protect children, and in one scene he sees a man hanging around as if a child molester and he vigorously chases him away.
I’ve never been to that part of Florida, but the locale as depicted by Baker is in lowly contrast to the beckoning lure and glitter of neighboring Disney World.
As one follows the exploits of the youngsters, one can appreciate their resilience, and as one follows the trajectory of Moonee’s mom one can be moved by her plight even without liking her. Baker has a sharp eye for detail and for depicting this environment in a way that at times almost makes the film seem like a documentary. An A24 release. Reviewed October 6, 2017.