Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives in a harsh, impoverished world. The Florida Project's heroine resides in a budget motel. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is so strapped for cash that she has to work as a petty thief and a prostitute to make rent. The movie makes you worry that both mother and daughter will either starve, go broke or, given their delightful but dangerous recklessness, be dead by the time the end credits roll.
Yet director Sean Baker's luminous odyssey overflows with wit and joy. That's mainly because of the happiness Moonee finds with her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) as they frolic across the sun-soaked outskirts of Orlando, Fla. Rather than begging us to pity these pint-sized scoundrels, Baker (Tangerine) lets us bask in the joy of their parent-free adventures, like scrounging up enough money to buy a soft-serve ice cream cone and teasing Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the cranky-but-kind manager of the motel.
Working from an original screenplay that he co-wrote with Chris Bergoch, Baker rejects the mechanical loss-of-innocence tropes that often hamper movies about childhood. The film's gifted child actors attack each scene with seemingly improvisational flair. Baker follows suit, allowing the narrative to take episodic detours that fuel the film's thrillingly vérité vibe. That includes a nighttime birthday party and a touching moment where an overworked Bobby can't resist letting Moonee play hide-and-seek in his office.
There are also some nauseating things to witness, like the menacing elderly man who lingers near Moonee outside the motel. Yet there are also vibrant colors and gloriously intense emotions.
Most of all, there's the wild image of Moonee and Jancey sprinting together, laying claim to a world that may be brutal and imperfect, but is still theirs.
CRITIC'S RATING: 4/4 stars.
The Florida Project is rated R and opens at Fox Tower on Friday, Oct. 20.