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      The Florida Project Review

      The Florida Project poster

      The Florida Project

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      In different hands, the people knocking around the mauve-slathered kitsch universe of "The Florida Project," a highlight of the fall season, might've made for a pretty awful and manipulative dramatic experience. At-risk children running wild and having too much fun to know why they're hurting inside; a poverty-line motel named the Magic Castle, a cruelly short distance from Orlando's Walt Disney World, run by a kindly, big-hearted manager; a pace of perpetual motion set by the 6-year-old with the reckless mother at the narrative center: It sounds like the stuff of vicious pathos.

      But director and cowriter Sean Baker's sixth feature turns out to be a dazzling mosaic, alert to the ebb and flow of human resilience in the face of everyday crises. No hurricanes here. No convenient, inciting dramatic incident and easy resolution. "The Florida Project," which takes place along a mile or so of trinket shops, by-the-week motels and junk food emporiums along Route 192 near Disney World, veers this way and that, chasing after various characters. Only in its later stages does it go for the emotional jugular. By then Baker has earned it.

      We come to know the dimensions and inhabitants of the Magic Castle very well in "The Florida Project," with an attention to detail reminiscent of what Hitchcock brought to the diorama-like Greenwich Village in "Rear Window." The Magic Castle is an ordinary three-story hotel, with rooms going for $38 a night on average. (That's still $1,100 a month; the poor get poorer, as the saying goes.)

      Bobby, played by a supremely relaxed Willem Dafoe, has seen it all. He enters the story quietly, without grandstanding, as referee of a dispute involving some of his long-term residents. From one perspective there's nothing extraordinary about the mother and daughter in Room 323. Halley, played by splendidly unselfconscious newcomer Bria Vinaite, is a young woman who watches a lot of TV, fears no authority figure, cadges the occasional take-out meal from a fast-food employee and peddles wholesale perfume in front of fancy hotels to credulous tourists. She also turns the occasional trick to make the rent.

      Her daughter is Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince in one of the most stunningly assured screen debuts since Tatum O'Neal in "Paper Moon." She's 6. Hers is a free-range childhood in extremis. For Moonee the tourist helicopter hovering in various scenes of "The Florida Project" is like a helicopter parent, flying away, always.

      Baker lays out his film as a sort of procedural, light on conventional plotting, paradoxically heavy on the glancing, disarming incident. We first meet Moonee and her fellow motel resident pal Scooty (Christopher Rivera) sitting around, looking for something to do. It's the beginning of summer. Pretty soon Moonee and pals, perched on a nearby motel balcony, are spitting on a parked car below. This casual prank leads to a new friendship: The car belongs to the grandmother (Josie Olivo) of Jancey (Valeria Cotto, heartbreakingly sincere). The lives of Halley and Moonee are lives typically sidelined or ignored in American movies.

      The kids provoke serious mischief and, at one point, enormous, fire-related damage in Baker's film. The vignettes accumulate, as Moonee and company heckle a nude sunbather one minute and fast-talk their way into free ice cream the next. (Scooty's successful pitch to the counter server: "The doctor said we have asthma and we gotta eat ice cream right away.") The adventures, which Baker has said take a cue from the old "Our Gang" comedies, carry an exhilarating unpredictability, sometimes sobering, sometimes funny, and the moods change very quickly.

      For an hour or so you don't really know where "The Florida Project" is going; you're more than willing, however, to follow the short, sharp chapters of Moonee's summer and see where it's all headed. The script, cowritten by Chris Bergoch, is shaped like a funnel. In the later scenes, Baker narrows the focus to Halley and Moonee's imperiled, imperiling but hardly joyless existence.

      There's a significant visual flourish at the epilogue I'm not sure I buy. The decision to revert to iPhone-like footage, akin to Baker's technique on his previous feature, the L.A.-set "Tangerine," is both a practical and an aesthetic one, but it's the one passage of "The Florida Project" that feels off to me.

      Elsewhere, though, shooting on 35-millimeter film, Mexico City-trained cinematographer Alexis Zabe (a key collaborator on some terrific, disparate films, from "Duck Season" to "Post Tenebras Lux") takes Baker in a new direction. The filmmaking's kinetic but the camera moves selectively. Baker shoots the action the way Bobby keeps an eye on everybody. There's a dash of Truffaut's "400 Blows" and "Small Change" in the movie's recipe, along with the "Our Gang" vibe. Dafoe has never had a role this warm and sweet, and he plays it for low-keyed honesty. The kids and the adults, some non-professionals, all become part of a bright purple beehive.

      Baker has used the term "pop verite" to describe that beehive. Every minute the movie runs the risk of softening or falsifying its characters. A more shameless, showboating "name" actor as Bobby would've inevitably turned some of the manager's scenes into cliches -- effective, maybe, but familiar and hollow. Dafoe works a small miracle in the role. I love how Baker lets the movie's benevolent father figure sidewind his way into the lives of his tenants. (There's a great bit where Bobby has to put up with the kids hiding out in his cramped office.) We learn only fragments about Bobby's past in "The Florida Project," along with Halley's. The present, alive and kicking, is enough for these people to deal with, and it's more than enough for one of the bright lights in American cinema.

      MPAA rating: R (for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material).

      Running time: 1:55

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