There are many ostensibly banal activities for us to view in “The Florida Project,” yet almost all of them are mesmerizing. Many are uproarious fun, and more than a few are devastating.
In Sean Baker’s intriguing drama we watch a rat pack of 6-year-olds go tearing across the sidewalks and streets not far from Florida’s Disney World, with the camera behind them hustling to keep up. It’s the view a grown-up would have, chasing the scoundrels to make sure they weren’t going to charge blindly into traffic. We spend time with the good-spirited manager of the Magic Castle Inn, a flophouse motel that is the kids’ home, more or less. We follow him around the garish electric-lavender make-believe citadel as he cleans up the detritus left behind by sloppy, disorganized guests. And we look at a low- to no-income single mom make her best sales pitches to sell almost-designer perfume and cologne from her shopping bag to visitors at nearby luxury accommodations.
“The Florida Project” is fiction with the feel of a fine documentary. It’s about life near the bottom rung of American society with all its innocence and corruption, told with the aura of sharp-eyed cinema verite. It doesn’t just show what its characters go through, it observes. It notices. It studies. This is a film that pays attention to the little details that communicate huge feelings.
The film is sprawling and episodic, yet it never seems to be overstaying its time, nor wasting it. It gives us the story of Moonee (gifted Brooklynn Prince), a wild little firecracker of a girl, and her unpredictable, immature mother, Hailey (Bria Vinaite), who seems barely out of her trashy teens. Raising Moonee alone, treating her more like a little sister than a child, Hailey lets the kid run wild.
And run wild she does. Moonee leads a spitting contest with her friends Jancey and Scooty to see who can spritz the farthest on a parked car. She mouths off to authoritarian adults like the love child of “Our Gang’s” Little Rascals and the “South Park” kids. She trashes ugly, failed, Crayola-hued apartment complexes to a level that alarms the authorities but thrills the neighbors. Moonee is an upbeat hellcat and no one (except her mom, occasionally) is the boss of her. Hard as life may look to old people, it’s a grand adventure to a 6-year-old bad-ass.
Writer/director Baker serves most of the film from a kid’s perspective. But it also shows us how tough the world looks to the elders. Willem Dafoe, wonderfully playing the hardworking manager of the Magic Castle Inn, has to clean up bedbugs from infected rooms. Though he’s continually harassed by endlessly demanding clients, he never ignores the fact that unemployed Hailey and Moonee would be homeless without his help.
The ending, which arrives as a surprise, can be understood as a realistic twist or outright fantasy. It’s a suitable finale for a film that starts out sensational and gets better as it goes.