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THE FLORIDA PROJECT: 4 ½ STARS. “one of the best films of the year.”

“The Florida Project,” mixes joy with heartbreak in a story about life just outside the doors of the Magic Kingdom.

Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives at the Magic Castle Motel, a dowdy Florida pink dump located just behind Disney World. Halley (Bria Vinaite), her ex-stripper mom, barely makes ends meet. She’s almost always late with the weekly rent she owes to the exasperated motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) and every thirty days they have to check out and check back in so as not to establish permanent residency. It’s a chaotic lifestyle but for Mooney, it’s normal. She’s a happy little girl who, with her friends, turns the motel and surroundings into their own Adventureland. They hustle the locals for ice cream money, spit on car windshields and get up to harmless no-good fun. She makes the best of a bad situation, comforted in the childlike belief that her mom and friends will always be there for her.

“The Florida Project” is, hands down, one of the best films of the year. Low-budget and naturalistic, it packs more punch than any superhero. Director Sean Baker defies expectations. He’s made a film about kids for adults that finds joy in rocky places. What could have been a bleak experience or an earnest message movie is brought to vivid life by characters that feel real.

It’s a story about poverty that neither celebrates or condemns its characters. Mooney’s exploits are entertaining and yet an air of jeopardy hangs heavy over every minute of the movie. Baker knows that Halley and Moonie’s well being hangs by a thread but he also understands they exist in the real world and never allows their story to fall into cliché.

An electric and charismatic cast aids Baker. Prince makes Moonie the film’s beating heart while Vinaite is a live wire, simultaneously careless and protective. Dafoe hands in his most memorable performance in years as a man whose obvious empathy is coloured by the difficult choices he must make.

“The Florida Project” has heartbreaking moments but celebrates the power of friendship and the bond between mother and daughter. Mooney may be having a rough go of it now, but she’s not prepared to give up. Check out the unwitting metaphor for her own life she uses to describe her favourite landmark, a gnarled tree. “It’s fallen over,” she says, “but it’s still growing.”

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