DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The writer-director Sean Baker took the 2015 Sundance Film Festival by storm with "Tangerine," a gritty comic portrait of two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles. Two years later, he's back with a look at another marginalized community in "The Florida Project," which arrives in theaters today after playing the Cannes, Toronto and New York Film Festivals. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "The Florida Project" is one of the most thrillingly alive portraits of childhood I've ever seen. It's a neo-realist sugar rush of a movie, like a 21st century American update of "Los Olvidados" or "Bicycle Thieves" reimagined in rainbow sherbet colors and sprinkled with Pop Rocks. The writer-director Sean Baker and his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, shape the stuff of one girl's turbulent upbringing into a raw, exuberant comedy that darkens almost imperceptibly into tragedy. It packs an emotional wallop like nothing else I've seen this year. For two hours, the movie suspends us in the day-to-day rhythms of life at the Magic Castle, a dumpy three-story motel complex in Kissimmee, Fla., just south of Orlando.
With its bright purple walls and discount fairy tale trappings, the Magic Castle was clearly modeled on Disney World, though any tourists who wind up here generally do so by accident. It's a place where drifters and stragglers rent out cramped rooms for 38 bucks a night and where local missionaries pass out baked goods and brawls erupt in the parking lot. Most of all, it's a place where kids run free, making all sorts of mischief that their guardians are too busy or too neglectful to notice.
The most neglected of these little rascals is Moonee, a wildly energetic 6-year-old hellion played by a startling discovery named Brooklynn Kimberly Prince. Moonee is a force of nature, as imputent as she is irresistible. The poverty of her circumstances has also blessed her with an extraordinary imagination. The Magic Castle may be a bargain basement fantasy land, but through Moonee's eyes, it somehow comes alive as a kingdom of genuine enchantment.
"The Florida Project" is a remarkable evocation of children at play. The camera follows Moonee and her friends as they scramble up and down the stairs and in and out of rooms, getting underfoot and causing trouble. In one early scene, we see Moonee touring the neighborhood with her buddy, Scooty, played by Christopher Rivera, and a new girl named Jancey, played by Valeria Cotto, whom she introduces to one of their favorite hustles.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FLORIDA PROJECT")
BROOKLYNN PRINCE: (As Moonee) And this is where we get free ice cream.
VALERIA COTTO: (As Jancey) Really?
PRINCE: (As Moonee) Yeah.
CHRISTOPHER RIVERA: (As Scooty) Yeah. Follow me.
PRINCE: (As Moonee) Could we have some money? Do we have enough? Excuse me. Excuse me, Miss. Could you give us some change, please? We need to buy ice cream.
RIVERA: (As Scooty) 'Cause we don't have any money. We just have five cents.
PRINCE: (As Moonee) Yeah, we just have five cents.
RIVERA: (As Scooty) And the doctor said we have asthma and we got to keep ice cream right away.
PRINCE: (As Moonee) Yeah, my doctor too.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Guys.
PRINCE: (As Moonee) We're not lying.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) It's fine.
PRINCE: (As Moonee) Thank you very much.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Here you go.
PRINCE: (As Moonee) Let's go. Come on.
CHANG: Moonee inherited her gift for wheedling money out of strangers from her mother, Halley, a 22-year-old played by another terrific newcomer named Bria Vinaite. Halley barely makes the rent each week, but when she and Moonee aren't playing and hanging out together, they too have a money making-scheme of sorts. They buy knockoff perfume bottles wholesale and then sell them to guests at nicer hotels nearby while a friend who works at the Waffle House down the road sneaks them free food out the back door.
Halley's green-streaked hair and heavy tattoos may invite your snap judgments, but what makes her such an unfit mother isn't her appearance but her attitude. She's as much of a child as Moonee is, and Vinaite plays her with jaw-jutting defiance and a rage that can flare up in an instant. Reflexively mean and spiteful, Halley is one of those lost souls who have long since decided that there's no point in being nice or gracious when the deck is so completely stacked against you.
That may explain why she saves most of her contempt for the person who keeps trying to help her, the motel's perpetually put-upon manager, Bobby. He's played by Willem Dafoe, one of the few recognizable faces in the cast. And he gives the kind of performance that makes you fall in love with an actor anew. Whether he's making repairs around the building, attending to a sudden power failure or protecting the unsupervised kids from a stranger on the premises, Bobby is as hardworking and long suffering as they come. But he can't hide his love for his tenants, even the ones like Halley and Moonee who make his life hell. Why else would he keep bailing them out?
Baker scored an indie breakthrough in 2015 with the superb Los Angeles-set comedy "Tangerine" in which he worked with two transgender actresses to create a compelling hybrid of truth and fiction. That movie's claim to fame was that it was shot on a high-definition iPhone camera. With "The Florida Project," which was photographed almost entirely on gorgeous 35 millimeter film by Alexis Zabe, Baker has taken his brand of lower-depth surrealism to new heights of formal sophistication without sacrificing a moment's authenticity.
For all its dreamlike interludes, its lushest day-glo colors and purple-gold sunsets, "The Florida Project" is ruthless in its lack of sentimentality. The story plays out with a bone-deep understanding of what poverty does to people, how few options it leaves them with. The beauty of the movie is that it sustains its unresolvable tension between realism and fantasy to the very end - or does it? I'll leave it to you to experience the jaw-dropping finale of "The Florida Project" for yourself. It's a magical moment, even as it reminds you that not everyone lives happily ever after.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic at The Los Angeles Times. On Monday's show, historian Anne Applebaum talks about the 1933 famine in Ukraine orchestrated by Joseph Stalin, a classic example of genocide. Applebaum is the author of the book "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." She'll also talk about current Russian interference in elections. She helps run an election monitoring project at the London School of Economics. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEN PEPLOWSKI'S "MY BUDDY")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.