The Florida Project, the new film from director and co-writer Sean Baker (Tangerine) that opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, has created plenty of buzz at prestigious film festivals like Cannes and Toronto. Shot on the tourist strip of U.S. Highway 192 in Kissimmee, Florida, the film follows a single mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), as they eke out a semi-homeless existence while staying at the Magic Castle, a garishly purple run-down motel. The film isn't going to receive many appreciation awards from tourism groups like Visit Florida, but its humanist depiction of families on the fringe of society – an experience that is too often erased from the narrative we tell ourselves about the place where we live – makes it essential viewing.
The film is delivered mainly from the perspective of Moonee, an adorable young girl who runs around the premises of the Magic Castle and neighboring hotels with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Almost completely unsupervised, the trio spend their summer spitting off railings, climbing trees, sneaking into abandoned condos and spying on grown-ups. The kids in these motels, whose families are often paying week-to-week to have a roof over their heads, are exposed to more of the seedy side of life than most children their age, including violence and drug use from the adults around them. But their spirits are still those of children, finding adventure and play – and sugar – wherever they can.
But the adult world is always there, even if Moonee can't see it. "We're going to take bikini pictures," Halley tells Moonee after her perfume-selling hustle is shut down by a security guard at a neighboring swanky resort. Moonee may think it's a fun game, but an adult audience knows that something's up when Halley takes a split second to make sure Moonee's not reflected in the mirror as she takes a picture of her mom pouting at the camera in a skimpy bathing suit. Moonee's frequent extended bath time play sessions – accompanied by a radio playing full-blast – are interrupted one night when a man walks into the bathroom as we hear Halley yelling at him.
Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle, in a performance that seems predestined for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. An inversion of his trademark over-the-top performances in films like The Boondock Saints or Shadow of the Vampire, Dafoe's Bobby is a gentle soul – a Florida Man in all the best ways – who brings a small semblance of order to the lives of the children who often fall under his supervision. Despite hints that there's a history of conflict within his own family, he sets boundaries for the kids even as he butts heads with Halley, whose deep-set combativeness threatens to get her and her daughter kicked out of the motel.
The title of the film is actually a reference to the codename that Walt Disney had for Walt Disney World back when it was in the planning phases – back when he and the Disney corporation used dummy companies to buy up large tracts of land in an attempt to secure the cheapest possible per-acre price. Baker's film could be read as an indictment of the economic impact that a tourist economy has on the people who live in the area, but that would be a too-simplistic interpretation of a tragically beautiful film.