‘Florida Project’ a magnificent portrait of joyous, troubled childhood

All childhoods must come to an end, few of them as piercingly as the one in “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker’s raw, exuberant and utterly captivating new movie. The child in question is a wild and irrepressible 6-year-old girl named Moonee, played by a startling discovery named Brooklynn Prince.

Remember and cherish that name, not least for its playful suggestion of royalty: Moonee is very much the princess in this contemporary American fairy tale, and her kingdom is the Magic Castle, a sprawling, three-story motel not far from another Florida project called Disney World.

With its bright purple exteriors and discount fairy-tale trappings, the Magic Castle is one of several tacky knockoff inns that have sprung up in that theme park’s colossal shadow. It’s a place where dashed hopes dwell side-by-side with ersatz dreams, where drifters and stragglers, moms and dads rent rooms for $38 a day from a hard-working manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe, never better). The parking lot bustles with activity, whether from the Christian relief workers who show up to hand out baked goods or the noisy brawls that frequently erupt on hot summer nights.

Like the vibrantly seedy stretch of Hollywood that Baker explored in “Tangerine,” his scrappy, splendid 2015 comedy about the friendship between two transgender prostitutes, the Magic Castle is a harrowing world unto itself, one that inevitably breeds toughness and resignation in those who call it home. It’s the kind of destination that most tourists and most filmmakers would typically steer clear of, but Baker, who wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, is decidedly not like most filmmakers.

“The Florida Project” has the same intimately searching spirit and fascination with marginalized subcultures as “Tangerine,” but it’s also something greater: Scene by scene, it assembles one of the most infectious and thrillingly alive portraits of childhood I’ve ever seen. Imagine a Sunshine State riff on “Los Olvidados” or “Bicycle Thieves,” slathered in sherbet hues and sprinkled with Pop Rocks, and you’ll get some sense of the strange, sun-scorched beauty of Baker’s accomplishment. He has made a dazzling neorealist sugar rush of a movie.

By fusing the camera to Moonee’s wide-eyed gaze, Baker allows us to perceive this gaudy bargain-basement wonderland the way she does, as a realm of genuine enchantment. Up and down the stairs we go, racing after Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who lives just one floor down, and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a new girl from a nearby inn called Futureland.

With rapturous abandon, they turn the Magic Castle into their playground, spilling ice cream in the lobby, triggering a power outage and generally making the kind of mischief that their guardians are too busy or too neglectful to notice.

None is more neglected than Moonee, a pint-sized human whirlwind who’s at once impudent and completely irresistible and wily enough to know it. She’s already mastered the art of the hustle, having been well trained by her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), a 22-year-old unemployed stripper. Early on the two seem to be just about scraping by, selling bottles of cheap perfume to tourists outside the nicer hotels in the vicinity and sneaking free food out the back of the Waffle House where Scooty’s mother (Mela Murder) works.

With her chest tattoos and lip piercings, Halley seems almost calculated to draw the viewer’s snap judgments, but what makes her such an appalling mother — to call her “unfit” would be charitable — isn’t her appearance but her attitude. She’s as much of a child as Moonee is, and Vinaite, another sensational newcomer (Baker found her on Instagram), plays her with a jaw-jutting defiance that can flare, in an instant, into spiteful rage.

Halley is one of those lost souls who have long since decided there’s no point in being kind or gracious in a world that is so completely set against you. Before long she’s fast running out of friends and favors and must take increasingly desperate actions to ensure her and Moonee’s survival.

No one tests Bobby’s patience more than Halley, for the simple reason that he’s the only one who goes out of his way to help her. He is forever threatening to evict her over unpaid rent — those inclined toward drinking games should take a swig every time Bobby utters the words “You’re outta here!” — but beneath his exasperation you can sense his fundamental decency, his fondness for even his most unlovable tenants.

Dafoe, the most recognizable face in the cast, gives the kind of performance that simply makes you fall in love with an actor anew: gruff, big-hearted, riven with quiet complexity. Bobby spends so much time cleaning up other folks’ messes that you sense he’s had little chance to attend to his own.

It’s the tension between hardscrabble realism and buoyant fantasy — and the understanding that they are both, in fact, vital aspects of the same experience — that makes “The Florida Project” so powerfully unresolved. Another filmmaker might have stumbled into the trap of romanticizing his characters’ poverty, but Baker has an unusual ability to keep contradictory moods, ideas and perspectives in balance.

Late in the film, he strikes a note of awe when he follows Moonee and her friends into a nearby field of grazing cattle — an interlude of such lush, dreamlike poetry that you’re almost taken aback when the ruthless, unsentimental logic of the story reasserts itself.

That honesty finds a heartrending echo in Prince’s performance, which goes so far beyond the precocious mugging that often passes for child acting that it all but defies that classification. Beneath Moonee’s beaming innocence we can sense buried layers of suspicion and melancholy, as if she were partly aware of the cruel truths unfolding just beyond her field of vision. In one of the movie’s most resonant, casually revealing moments, Moonee murmurs, “I can always tell when adults are about to cry.”

That might be another way of saying that she can see the ending coming, though I’m not sure how anyone could. In its final moments “The Florida Project” makes an astonishing, lyrical leap, one that confirms my sense that Baker is not just an unusually observant filmmaker but also a full-fledged magician, a practitioner of the sublime. He has ventured into a world that few of us know and emerged with a masterpiece of empathy and imagination.

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