“The Florida Project” is a nuanced, thoughtful look at lives of impoverished Americans

In late 2017, Sean Baker released his third directorial venture, “The Florida Project,” to much critical acclaim. With award season just around the corner, the film was lauded for its ceaseless charm and heartfelt child acting. A gorgeously shot indie film, “The Florida Project” kicks off a column I will be expanding in the coming weeks, with which I hope to provide for you some flicks that might have flown under your radar but are no doubt worth the watch.

“The Florida Project” is a slice-of-life story set in the numerous dive motels surrounding Disney World. Most of its runtime shows the day-to-day antics of the children who live there. Moonee is six years old, boisterous and with a penchant for mischief. She spends the first days of summer playing with a few compatriots — Scooty, the equally rowdy boy who lives directly below, and Jancey, the timid girl whom Moonee will convert soon enough. The trio plays hide-and-seek, holds spitting contests and cavorts through scenes bathed in the Floridan sun. Much of their time is spent irking motel manager Bobby, who works unceasingly to balance his responsibilities to the motel with his commitment to helping his residents, many of whom double as his sort-of friends. One of these friends is Moonee’s mother, Halley, a loving caretaker in the most unfortunate of circumstances at nearly every turn. Halley, her daughter in tow, peddles cheap perfume on the hotel parking lots, only to splurge the earnings on beer and weed — a vicious cycle that always ends in a daze at Room 323.

What begins as a carefree look into the summer lives of three unruly children in a jungle of decrepit toy stores and stucco motels — each facade splashed in saccharine pastels — becomes an examination of the patterns that plague impoverished Americans. Never is this examination a critique; with his keen understanding of objective filmmaking, Baker manages to present without judgment.

The cinematography in “The Florida Project” should be especially praised. Director of photography Alexis Zabe produces a tangibly sweet atmosphere with every wide shot. Outdoor scenes are bright and expansive in scope — as if the audience is seeing the world through Moonee’s very eyes — while indoor scenes are cozily intimate in their dimness.

The film’s main attraction, of course, is the performances. Brooklynn Kimberly Prince as Moonee shines, perfectly embodying the spastic behavior of a six-year-old girl — one who lives in the shadow of Disney World but can’t afford to go there. Each utterance, each mannerism, each moment comes across as legitimate and felt. Bria Vinaite as Halley is almost equally realized, impressively balancing attitudes of motherly concern and apparent uncaring. Finally, Willem Dafoe as motel manager Bobby handles the discrepancy between duty and residential camaraderie with his acting veteran’s grace.

Though thin on plot, “The Florida Project” abounds in charm and believable characterization. Every second feels real. At times funny, nostalgic and heartbreaking, it is clear that Baker has a respect for the innocence of childhood, especially in those moments where the upsetting adult world comes knocking. “The Florida Project” is ultimately a thoughtful look at the lives of those less fortunate, but no less important.