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‘The Florida Project’ is remarkable, best film so far this year

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On the heels of the surprise Oscar-winning film “Moonlight,” burgeoning production company A24 Films has once again uncovered an extraordinary tale focused on a young child growing up in a destitute region of a Florida city in “The Florida Project.” And, once again, this film may be the next “little engine that could” that surprises everyone come next February.

The child this time around is a mischievous young girl named Moonee (seven year-old Brooklyn Prince, displaying acting chops far beyond her years), and the Florida-based setting is the Magic Castle motel, with bright pink stucco walls that belie the grim situations of its poverty-stricken residents, where Moonee lives with her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, another brilliant newcomer).

Though the Magic Castle motel is just down the road from Disney World, it might as well be 1,000 miles away for Halley, whose dire financial straits have reduced her to selling knockoff cologne, stealing and reselling Disney wristbands and even prostitution. Halley is barely scraping by in her perpetual struggle to pay her weekly rent to motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, in an Oscar-worthy turn), a weathered landlord who has tremendous compassion for his residents but an acute awareness that he has a business to run.

For young Moonee and her friends Yancy and Scooty (Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera), however, every day is a magical adventure. Who needs Disney’s Haunted Mansion when you can explore a nearby abandoned building or fake asthma to trick a stranger into buying you ice cream? It is through Moonee’s innocence and sense of wonder that much of the story is told. And it’s that innocence Halley strives to preserve, even in the face of desperate circumstances.

Over the years Baker, who co-wrote the script with Christopher Bergoch, has developed somewhat of a calling card for discovering and honing unknown talent. Each of his past five films have featured newcomers in starring roles. And with Prince and Vinaite, he has once again struck gold. Prince carries much of the film’s dramatic weight on her pint-sized shoulders and she succeeds extraordinarily well.

And Vinaite, in her first acting role, backs up her intriguing physicality (the tattoos marking her chest area are real) with raw honesty and three-dimensionality that never strike a false note. Dafoe, far from being a newcomer, blends in seamlessly with the relatively green cast in a milestone effort that will almost certainly secure him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the next Oscars. The heartbreaking mother-daughter tale carries the film, but it’s Bobby’s inner conflict that grounds it and elevates the story into something truly special.

“The Florida Project” serves as a dynamic showcase, not only for Baker’s propensity for assembling talent, but also for his own storytelling talents. Like the aforementioned “Moonlight,” “The Florida Project” is as stunning visually as it is subtle narratively. Baker never sanctifies Halley, Moonee or Bobby, nor does he ever reach for “woe is me” sympathy; he simply, and beautifully, gives us real, flawed people genuinely trying their best. And the results, much like the natural lighting of the Florida landscape that Baker so elegantly captures, are breathtaking.

With a story that is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, “The Florida Project” (which is rated R) will linger on the minds of audience members long after they have left the theater, encouraging them to consider, perhaps for the first time, who the Moonees are in their own communities. And for that, it certainly deserves to remain on the minds of Oscar voters come next February.

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