“The Florida Project”

See this Sean’s Baker film to experience terrific acting by an entire cast. Willem Dafoe dazzles as Bobby, a motel manager whose lavender enterprise shelters three floors of by-the-week renters who are just trying to exist.

The children tenants have an easier time of it. The Magic Castle motel plays to Orlando’s Disney World theme for them. Junk food, fireworks, haunted houses with “ghost poop”, and a swimming pool and hiding places galore are givens. Dafoe’s Bobby watches over all: he eliminates begbugged mattresses and keeps the washing machines and the electricity working according to code. He chases away child molesters and prostitutes and dealers. His younger brother often helps and there is a security guard hired to help keep the peace. He is like a beloved mayor, discerning, patient, and above board.

The neighborhood is rife with Floridian color. Orange World and the soft-serve ice cream “Twistee Treat” keep our gang of six-year-olds playfully full. Styrofoam containers are the  plates du jour for most of the film. Room 323 is a healthy food desert. Halley ( Bria Vinaite ) sends her young daughter to a church van to pick out loaves of free bread weekly. Jelly bread looks like manna from heaven through children’s eyes. In fact, what this film is wonderful at is making a “slummish motel” look like a child’s magic kingdom.

Urchin Moonee ( Brooklyn Prince ) is the ringleader. She whistles into fans, chants “we need more ice”, spits through railings to slime car window shields below, and has fun spraying Windex in cleaning up. Bouncing balls of energy, the gang Scott ( Christopher Rivera) and Jancey ( Valeria Cotto) remind us what it was like to play hide and seek, jump on beds, and seek adventure in abandoned buildings, and on dirt paths. Moonee tells us that if she had a pet alligator, she would call it “Ann”.

Every social worker, counselor, principal, and teacher would benefit from seeing this film. The adventures of childhood with its dangers and joys are splayed on the screening almost as episodically as Hal Roach’s  “Our Gang”. The little rascals here are just as endearing, but in much more danger.  Stolen grocery carts and shopping cart rides across a busy highway is an apt image.

Dafoe is less patient and more like his harsher roles when he casts out a menacing child molester. He tries to keep reign on Halley as she slips into prostitution, scamming, and petty theft. Her hawking of wholesale perfume in front of more upscale hotels leaves her in altercations with the security officer for unwanted soliciting. The perfume is confiscated, and the downward spiral begins.

Halley is a tough and angry survivalist. She pummels friends, and acts out with toddler-like antics like emptying      a soda on a lobby floor, littering a parking lot with carry-outs, and most egregiously sticking a used maxi-pad on the glass door of a motel that has rejected her and Moonee. She strikes back like a viper, tongue thrust out, and we fear Moonee will learn to do the same to no avail. Moonee’s “ your not the boss of me” tells us we may not be celebrating good times in the future.

My favorite line comes prophetically from Moonee. She points out her favorite tree and tells her friends and us the reason: “cause it is tipped over and it is still growing”. We  could say the same of these children’s lives. I just wish I could be more hopeful that all will reach the sky.