The Florida Project brings you not quite to Disney World

A- Slice of life
Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Directed by Sean Baker

Cheap motels and tourist traps abound on the edge of Florida’s Disney World. Some, such as The Magic Castle, have become unofficial residency motels, filled with desperate people – mostly single mothers. Tourists are few and far between.

Sean Baker’s touching film, The Florida Project, concentrates on the children living in this motel and another nearby, called Future World. It’s summer, so school isn’t an issue. The kids run around free, annoying people and destroying property. Every time they run through the parking lot or get near the extremely busy street, your heart misses a beat.

Most of the film is seen through the eyes of Moonie (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), a little girl living with her mother at The Magic Castle. On one level, she’s a terror. When we first meet Moonie, she and some friends are spitting from above on a parked car. When the car’s owner objects, Moonie curses her out and sees no reason to stop or apologize.

Prince, who is only seven, gives an astonishing performance for someone her age. She’s adorable, of course, but she has a surprising range and considerable charisma.

We soon learn where Moonie gets her attitude. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), doesn’t care if her daughter spits on a neighbor’s car. She smokes in her room, which is not allowed. She steals and scams, and encourages Moonie to the same.

This young, single mother comes off initially as a fun, free spirit. You can see why Moonie loves having a mother like Halley. But the more you get to know her, the more you realize that she really shouldn’t be raising a young child.

There are other poor single mothers around, and they also struggle. But they have a concept of responsibility.

Willem Defoe – the only familiar face in the movie – plays the motel manager. It’s a hard job, and not just physically. He must deal with these people, and Haley makes his life particularly difficult. But he has a soft spot for the kids at the motel and watches over them. I’m pretty sure that he hasn’t thrown Halley out because he worries about Moonie.

Baker has a knack for people and places on society’s margin; he also made Tangerine, my favorite film of 2015. In The Florida Project, he captures a corner of town filled with cheap tourist traps. Aside from the motels with the Disneyesque names, there are stores that sell only Disney or Disney-like paraphernalia. All the local businesses struggle in the shadow of the Mouse, and very little of the money trickles down.

The Florida Project could be 15 or 20 minutes shorter. But as it stands, it’s still an amazing journey into a part of America you’ve probably never experienced.