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Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince from The Florida Project, photo courtesy A24
Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince from The Florida Project, photo courtesy A24

The Florida Project rolls nationwide this week. It’s a quirky, difficult and sometimes heartbreaking movie, filled with foul-mouthed kids and deeply troubled parents and more content concerns than a season of South Park.

And it’s one of my favorite films of the year.

Most of the film takes place in a seedy hotel in Kissimmee, Fla.—so close to Walt Disney World that you can hear Disney’s fireworks every night from the parking lot. The hotel’s painted in a shade landing somewhere between cotton-candy pink and ugly-bruise purple, and the color fits: Most of the hotel’s residential “guests” have been knocked around plenty.

They’re society’s forgotten poor, locked in a cycle of poverty that they just can’t quite break. For them, just surviving is an everyday occupation. Bobby, the kindly superintendent (played by Willem Dafoe), does what he can to make the place livable and the lives of his guests bearable. But there’s only so much he can do—especially when some residents do a bang-up job undercutting their own futures.

Take Halley (Bria Vinaite), a young woman who lives in the hotel with her 6-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). She can’t get a traditional job, and she scrambles every month to pay the rent. She and Moonee aren’t quite on the streets yet, but they’re just one bad break—one more mistake—away. And Halley, it seems, has a knack for making mistakes.

But for Moonee, this hotel really is in some ways a magical place. For her—the precocious leader of a ragtag pack of friends—this strip of Kissimmee is her kingdom, full of meadows to cross and derelict condos to explore and tourists to sweet-talk out of a dollar or two.

Director Sean Baker, who took the indie film world by storm in 2015 with Tangerine—a movie shot entirely on via iPhone—gives us a wonderful, terrible world here, where childhood wonder runs headlong into the bitter reality of poverty and poor choices. And it features a marvelous debut by 7-year-old Prince. Give the girl an Oscar now: She turned in the best performance I’ve seen this year.

But The Florida Project also grants us eyes and ears to see and hear an all-too-often invisible segment of society: the poor.

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