‘The Florida Project’ — life on the dark side of Orlando


“The Florida Project,” surely one of the year’s best films, comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. It digs deep into the world of a motel and its residents outside Orlando and Disney World.

School’s out for Moonie (terrific newcomer Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her pals Scootie (Christopher Rivera) and, later, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). These precocious 6-year-olds roam the ironically named, purple-painted Magic Kingdom Motel, where they live with their single parents. Moonie heads the gang, and her enthusiastic exploits border on delinquency.

The gang’s first, typically childish prank shows them spitting on a car from a motel balcony. Jancey’s grandmother (Josie Olivo) indignantly corrals them and demands a cleanup. Moonie gives Jancey a motel tour, until the three end up in a room where Moonie turns off the electricity for the entire complex. They scam tourists at the local ice cream shop into providing free cones. Breakfast comes from handouts sneaked out the back door by a waitress friend of Moonie’s mother. The kids’ foulmouthed language may shock viewers, but it clearly reflects what they hear around their parents.

Like most of the motel residents, Moonie’s purple-haired, tattooed mother, Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, pretty without being too pretty, is a single parent. She’s lost her job as a stripper, so to make money she peddles perfume to tourists at nearby pricier motels. Costing $38 a night, rent is a struggle for Halley to come up with, and she gradually descends into worse forms of employment.

The motel’s manager Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe in what is probably the best role of his career, empathizes with the residents’ hard-luck lives despite his more work-oriented responsibilities. His weathered face accompanies perfectly these enthralling children and their too-young parents. Keeping an eye out for Moonie and the other kids, he brings sanity to motel life.

Although she loves her daughter, Halley acts more like Moonie’s friend than a mature adult. She and the other parents are either at work or too engaged otherwise to tend to their children. The kids are on the loose and reveling in their freedom. One result involves setting fire to a nearby abandoned motel.

Director Sean Baker, whose last awardwinning film, “Tangerine,” is about a transvestite prostitute, turns the Disney version of the American Dream upside down. Instead he offers the viewer its seamy underside. Alexis Zabé photographs the scene in bright Florida colors. In one of the most poignant and revealing shots, he frames a tall, perfectly centered parking lot light with different-sized evergreens on either side. It’s an apt metaphor.

The episodic structure of “The Florida Project” captures the monotonous and bleak nature of life at the Magic Kingdom Motel without being heavy-handed. Moonie and her pals’ sheer vitality and openness balance their parents’ sad, borderline lives. With its haunting end, “The Florida Project” brilliantly describes not just seedy life in a motel outside Orlando but that of too uncomfortably large a segment of America.

For information and tickets to this and other Film Center and Capawock Theater films, see mvfilmsociety.com.