The great films about childhood are binocular. They frame the immediacy of youth in the foreground — the instantaneous comedy, the small disasters — while keeping a longer grown-up view in focus. They derive their tension (and their humor) from the difference between what we remember and what we know.
“The Florida Project” belongs among their number. The movie’s as heartbreaking and as true a portrait of modern America as the news will never show you.
And in Moonee, played by 6-year-old Brooklynn Prince, director/co-writer Sean Baker gives us an uncorkable fountain of life, one of God’s little anarchists. We see Moonee and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) racing around their neighborhood, playing pranks and having loogie contests and taunting the occasional enraged grown-up with happy profanity. The parent in you recoils. The kid in you rejoices. Moonee’s a brat and a marvel, a being wholly invested in the business of being alive.
Slowly her environs take shape on the screen. We’re in Orlando, hard by Disney World but a world away from the soothing corporate fantasies of the Kingdom. Moonee and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live in a cheap motel called the Magic Castle; it’s painted purple but only a child would be fooled. Halley, who is young, tattooed, loud, loving, and impulsive, is not society’s idea of a fit mother and probably not yours, either. Among other things, “The Florida Project” backs you into a corner where empathy wars with your sense of protectiveness. The movie doesn’t suggest an easy solution.
Baker sets his film over the course of one summer, when Moonee, Scooty, and their new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) run free among the vacant lots and empty condo developments of Orlando. Prince is a natural star, confident and loquacious — she’s the boss of all she surveys, and when she informs Jancey’s grandmother “Relax, your daughter’s safe in my hands,” you don’t doubt her for a second.
We get glimpses of the grown-ups’ struggles. Halley sells knock-off perfumes in resort parking lots, using Moonee as added guilt inducement; Scooty’s mother (Mela Murder) is a waitress in a local waffle house and has a level of responsibility that eventually forces a rift between the two women. Everyone here is getting by as best they can, which sometimes means the worst they can.
The movie does have a saint, though: the motel’s manager, Bobby, who is played by Willem Dafoe with the stoicism of a man who knows how hard it is to stand back up after you’ve fallen down a few times. Bobby tolerates the kids playing hide-and-seek in his office (when they’re not cutting the motel’s power) and he gracefully handles the crackpot tenants. To Halley, he’s a combination parent, confessor, judge, enabler, and friend. You may not find a more hair-raising scene this year than the one in which Bobby confronts a pedophile lurking around the edges of the motel grounds. You may not come across a sweeter moment of found comedy than his encounter with a family of sandhill cranes.
The director is the man who made “Tangerine,” the miracle movie of 2015 that was shot entirely on an iPhone. Except for one sequence, “The Florida Project” has been filmed in conventional 35mm (Alexis Zabe was the director of photography), and it looks gorgeous, with both the natural and man-made colors of Florida glowing in the humid air. More important, Baker may be the only director working in America to portray the country’s hidden underclass — all the people our popular culture tells us don’t actually exist — with the decency, vibrancy, and concern they deserve. For that reason alone, his movies are necessary.
The wonder is that they’re also good — full of interlocking joy and sorrow and told with the confidence of a born filmmaker. There’s a point in “The Florida Project” where the camera keeps returning to scenes of Moonee in the bathtub, and Baker knows we’ll hear the penny drop (along with our stomachs) on the third or fourth go-round. He understands the secret of cinema is to show and not tell.
And he places his effervescent little star in a rich cultural history of child portraiture. “The Florida Project” has many antecedents: Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” for one, and literary exposes of poverty like Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” but also classics of comic kid anarchy like “The Little Rascals” series, Jean Vigo’s “Zero for Conduct,” and Louis Malle’s “Zazie dans la Metro.” “The Florida Project” makes you understand why we rarely saw the adults in Spanky and the gang’s world — because then we’d see what the kids would be facing soon enough, and the laughs would catch in our throats.
Because Baker isn’t interested in lying to us, that reckoning eventually comes in “The Florida Project,” and it’s as hard to bear for Moonee and for us as it has to be. The final moments of the movie — which takes its title from an early name for Walt Disney’s proposed Orlando theme park — represent a gamble on the part of the filmmaker, the moment where all the buried contradictions boil to the surface. It’s an ending that wants to shake us hard, and while it works for many audiences, others (myself included) may feel it’s the one time the movie overplays its hand and turns self-consciously lyrical.
But, really, so what? A failure of ambition is preferable to a failure of nerve, and “The Florida Project” is — in nerve, guts, heart, and mind — one of the finest films of 2017. And once you see Moonee, Baker hopes you’ll see her and her mother everywhere. Because they are everywhere, if you care enough to look.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Directed by Sean Baker. Written by Baker and Chris Bergoch. Starring Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe. At Kendall Square. 115 minutes. R (language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references, some drug material).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.