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'Florida Project' is one of the year's best

The name of the place is "The Magic Castle." It's a "welfare hotel." Or, as some people more pitilessly call it "a slum hotel." Rooms rent there for 38 bucks a night. It's located a long run away from Disney World in Orlando.

People live there until the very second they might be "establishing a residence" in the place and then they're required to stay elsewhere for a little bit. The manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), keeps their things in storage for a night or two until they come back and take up residence again.

He does a lot of other minor kindnesses in his world weary and compassionate way. He's the sheriff on the premises, the watchful one who keeps pederastic perverts away from the kids  and who deals with the drugged out mothers who can't begin to raise 6-year-old daughters but love the kids to pieces anyway.

The name of the movie is "The Florida Project." It sounds a little like something you'd find in the file cabinet of an indie filmmaker who was planning on making a film in Florida as soon as he could scrape up two nickels to rub together along with a suitable willing cast.

You have no idea how much I wish the movie instead had been called "The Magic Castle." Or, at the very least, some other title that doesn't, as my father used to put it, "just lie there on the table like a lox" begging to be ignored.

But no, "The Florida Project" is what the movie is called. It is one of the great movies of 2017.

In telling the story of heartbreakingly realistic poverty in 21s century America, Sean Baker is telling another story altogether--the story of the heavenly resilience of antic and chaotic and neglected children who run around and do everything possible to raise themselves until adult incompetence and self-righteousness can't help but enclose them.

I defy anyone to know at every moment exactly what scenes in "The Florida Project" are improvised and what scenes are scripted.

Mostly, "The Florida Project" is about a 6-year-old named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother who smokes doobies the size of Churchill cigars. She's played by Bria Vinaite.

Except for Dafoe, as gentle but responsible Bobby, this is largely a cast of non-professionals but that's what makes the movie.

The kids are wild children. Looked at one way, they're tireless brats who express the joys of spitting at people over balconies and stealing into motel utility rooms to turn off the entire motel's electricity.

They are Francois Truffaut's "Les Mistons" raised to the nth power, but are seldom more than a couple of steps away from the long arm of society and its dismal authority.

It's true that Moonee and her mother Halley aren't geniuses of improvisation. But they wander into a prosperous nearby motel, claim to be residents and stuff themselves with all the food in the buffet. Then they claim to be staying in one of the motel's empty rooms and charge it to the room. (How would the waitress know?)

This is a movie that is little else but kids running around, making trouble, eating ice cream and living by their wits--until poverty and sordidness take over completely.

As the film goes on, it gets darker. The effervescence and resilience of growing children is truly awe-inspiring but, as the film goes on, we see that it is no match for adults who simply can't figure life out and who improvise ways that can't possibly succeed.

The ending -- which was filmed guerilla-style in Disney World by a smart phone - -will break your heart as few other endings will do in movies of 2017. You'll weep for these kids and try to hope for their future. And realize how many brothers and sisters they have in this "Magic Castle" of a society.

"The Florida Project"

4 stars (out of 4)

Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite and Christopher Rivera in Sean Baker's universally acclaimed story of people living in a welfare hotel just outside Disney World in Orlando. 115 minutes. Rated R for language, adult themes and stark realism.


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