The Florida Project ★★★½

The title is a coy allusion to the working name of Walt Disney's Orlando theme park during his lifetime, and crudely, to the out-of-sight / out-of-mind notion of "housing projects," applied here not to government housing but to the makeshift co-opting of low-rent motels along the Kissimmee highway as a cruel haven of sorts for impoverished families. Sean Baker's film tries to illuminate one such single mother and child, and their haphazard circle, and often succeeds at rendering their world in three dimensions if not their actual characters. While Bria Vinaite gives a fine performance (in fact, the entire cast is excellent, and this may be one of the best-acted American films of the modern era) as the harried young mom with a short fuse who creates a house of cards of short-term solutions to make ends meet, in terms of the writing she doesn't particularly rise above a stereotype, while Baker's more comfortable with the perspective and inner life of her child Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her friends Scooty and Jancey; all three ring truer, witty and coarse dialogue and all, than any of the film's adults, save the long-suffering motel supervisor modeled beautifully by an unexpectedly low-key Willem Dafoe and Josie Olivo as an impatient but kind neighbor at another complex. Baker intends this as both a kind of fantasy narrative about childhood resilience (the kids make entertainment for themselves in often inappropriate, hilarious ways -- though this particular habit is, of course, by no means limited to low-income children) and as a social problem picture investigating the way the poor are completely let down by the American system. Both stories have their utility but they gel rather poorly here, and as the tension amps up following an accident act of arson -- leading up to an admittedly poetic, dreamlike conclusion -- the film becomes more a source of stress and panic than of any deep insight.

But Baker uses Florida resourcefully; the colors and attitudes he documents will be familiar to anyone who's spent any time in the region, and his scattered cast of characters display complicated, multifaceted, everchanging relationships that are more believable than those in a film with a similar structure and goals like the Brazilian drama Neighboring Sounds. But the director's appropriate yet dour messaging would be better served, I feel, with a third act that wasn't quite so heavy on the sledgehammer. Also, I find it interesting that in narrative and sociological terms this film, while much grittier, has essentially the same structure as Beasts of the Southern Wild, which habitually gets raked over the coals for saying the same thing about children's relationship to their environment. Both films acknowledge those in the grips of horrific poverty as being victims of something largely beyond their control (though Baker tempers this a bit more by showing us Halley's weak moral compass and often appallingly bad decisionmaking, which he's careful to contrast with the more responsible but still underprivileged adults in her circle) but also allow them grace notes and sophistication, something beyond just despair because nothing is that simple... and in viewing all this through the eyes of children, they portray the interference of outside forces to offer rescue and respite as unfamiliar, strange and therefore scary, and yet somehow I haven't noticed any of those who inexplicably thought Beasts was anti-welfare lobbing the same idiotic criticism at this film, buuuuuut whatever.