'The Florida Project' has more magic than Disney World

Sean Baker makes us care about the impoverished people living in the world he shows.

In “The Florida Project,” the run-down motels ringing the depressed area outside Disney World are painted garish colors in an attempt to mask the ugliness underneath.

Sean Baker’s brilliant film works in almost the opposite way — we see the struggle of a 6-year-old girl growing up in one of those motels, called the Magic Castle, and while there is genuine ugliness in her life, there is also real beauty in the way she lives it.

Happily Baker, who also co-wrote the script, allows occasional glimmers of joy to shine through. Yet this is not a sappy, rosy-eyed view of Happy Struggling Poor People. Far from it.

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The first time we see Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, amazing), for instance, she and a friend run to an adjacent motel to spit on cars from the balcony, cursing all the while. The way things work in her world, Moonee soon becomes fast friends with the little girl, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), whose mother’s car is the target.

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"The Florida Project" stars Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite. (Photo: A24)

Moonee and Jancey and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) romp around the grounds of the hotel and the surrounding area all day, their activities varying from goofy kid stuff one day to out-and-out arson the next.

Halley (Bria Vinaite), Moonee’s mother, is accounted for if not present other than physically, her future plans extending no farther than the end of the joint she’s smoking. She tries to make ends meet, to pay the $38 a week it costs to live in the motel (moving out one day a month to avoid establishing residency), by selling perfume to people walking to their cars at nicer hotels. Sometimes Mooney accompanies her; an adorable little girl cloaked in a faint air of desperation can help seal the sale.

Keeping the hotel, and Moonee’s life, together is Bobby (Willem Dafoe, in maybe his best role, and that’s saying something). He manages the Magic Castle, and leans on Halley to at least try to follow the rules of the establishment — can you please not smoke in the room? — while keeping a watchful eye on Moonee and her friends. Sometimes that means chatting with them. Sometimes it means chasing off strangers whose interest in the motel playground he finds a little unseemly.

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In "The Florida Project," Bobby (Willem Dafoe) keeps an eye on Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). (Photo: A24)

But Bobby can only do so much. He knows it, and you get the feeling Moonee does, too. Halley is willing to take him for everything he’s got.

If this makes Halley sound like a bad mother, well, yes. But she’s not a bad person, not entirely. She wants to make a life for herself and especially for Moonee. She just has no earthly idea how. As a bad situation gets worse, she’ll resort to ever-more-risky measures to stay afloat.

Baker, whose last film was the terrific, shot-on-an-iPhone “Tangerine,” has a gift for small moments, and the film consists mostly of those moments woven into a larger portrait of surviving through poverty. Sometimes the film is a little on-the-nose — yes, we get it, the irony of living next door to the happiest place on earth while existing so far from that promise.

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"The Florida Project" stars Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite. (Photo: A24)

What’s more effective are the simple interactions between characters, or the little things that keep the story grounded. Moonee is not an unhappy child. Having the run of the place unsupervised is, after all, a kid’s dream. But Baker reins in that freedom with reminders that things aren’t so magical at the Magic Castle, like Moonee’s daily trips to the back door of the restaurant where Halley’s friend (and Scooty’s mother) works, to collect free food and scraps. (Halley, nothing if not brazen, sometimes complains about the selection of fare.)

Sometimes infuriating but never depressing, “The Florida Project” doesn’t just shine a light on people rarely represented in anything but a condescending manner. Instead it brings us into their world and introduces us to its inhabitants in a meaningful way. We care about them. Rarely in a movie will you want a character to succeed more than Moonee. Yet Baker doesn’t sugarcoat the odds, which, despite eventual moments of real magic, remain long indeed.

Reach Goodykoontz at bill.goodykoontz@arizonarepublic.com. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk.

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'The Florida Project,' 4.5 stars

Director: Sean Baker.

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto.

Rating: R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material.

Note: At Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square.

Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★

Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★

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