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The Florida Project

Every so often a film comes along that captures the unflinching humanity of its characters. Following in the tradition of “Boyhood,” and “Blue is the Warmest Color,” Sean Bakers “The Florida Project,” is a masterpiece of human emotion.

Its success rests largely on the shoulders of its 7-year-old star, Brooklynn Prince. Shouting, skipping, eating ice cream and tormenting adults throughout the film’s 115 minutes, Prince is an instant star.

She plays Moonie, a rebellious child living in a budget motel in Kissimee, Florida, on the outskirts of Disney World. She and her unemployed mother populate this impoverished world of extended-stay residents, drugs and prostitution.

Yet, these somber themes largely remain in the background, as Moonie and her band of mischievous friends tear through the cesspool of poverty, obesity and bedbugs with childlike abandon and whimsy. “The Florida Project” is at its most powerful when the child-world collides with the adult-world.

Willem Dafoe, in his understated and grizzled mastery, is the gatekeeper to these universes. He manages the Magic Castle, a beaten-down resort seven miles away from Epcot, letting residents slide on rent and rarely passing judgement on their seedy lifestyles while also allowing Moonie to run free even when her 6-year-old shenanigans have serious consequences. Rightly so, Dafoe is already an Oscar front-runner for Best Supporting Actor.

The film is beautiful, and cinematographer Alexis Zabes symphony of color elevates the film from an exploration of childhood to a whole artistic product. With bright oranges and purples shading in an often dreary world, Baker paints a three-dimensional portrait of the resilience and joys of childhood.

Baker’s genius is in framing. He shows the seedy underbelly of those living on the outskirts of American society, shooting at a real resort and using some real residents as actors, all through the lens of Moonie’s carefree summer vacation. He composes his shots from a wide perspective, capturing the unsavory world in all its color and light.

Baker, who also wrote and directed “Tangerine,” has accomplished something beautiful and daring with “The Florida Project.” Rejecting the temptation to glorify life with pretty actors and overly dramatic writing, Baker points his camera at a child coping with a traumatic and scary world around her. Moonie finds the color in what is often portrayed as a colorless world.

While playing with her friend Chancey in the woods, the 7-year-old protagonist points out why she loves the tree on which they are sitting.

“Cause it’s tipped over but still growing,” she says with casual glee.

In many ways this is the sentiment that pulses throughout the world of “The Florida Project.” In an impoverished resort, mere miles away from Disney World, the fireworks can still be seen in the distance, and the promise and wonder of Magic Kingdom hangs in the air, maintaining a thread of hope in this broken but functional community.

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