The Florida Project ★★★★½

You would think it would be really hard for a movie to be honest about the essence of childhood (both the joyful innocence part everybody loves to romanticize, and the bits where you remember "oh, yes, kids are often little shitheads" which most films don't bother with) and also a gripping story about the ugliness of poverty without having major tonal conflict, but THE FLORIDA PROJECT manages this trick flawlessly.

I want to specifically avoid spoilers because I think this is a movie that, while not really plot-driven, is one best seen fresh with as little advance knowledge as possible; the film's construction is artful, letting you guess certain reveals before they're actually revealed (one key development is presaged maybe fifteen to twenty minutes before the film confirms what's going on, and whenever you make the connection - I got it pretty early - you get that "oh no" feeling coming, and that's amazing to make one feel that way).

I will say, however, that the performances in this film are ridiculous. Brooklynn Prince is possibly the best child actor I have ever seen; completely comfortable on camera, utterly natural but also able to switch dramatically on cue in a way that makes you realize that this wasn't just some kid being filmed doing stuff (which, let's be honest, is what happens with a lot of child actors in dramas like these), but rather a professional working her craft. Bria Vinaite is so good you would think she really is Florida poor white trash (she is not). Willem Dafoe is getting a ton of Oscar talk and it is richly deserved; he's the moral center of the movie and you always want to cheer for him. Everybody else is excellent too, actors and "real people" (the cops and social workers in the movie are actual cops and social workers) alike.

God, what an experience. Go see it. In theaters, where you get the full impact of those neon pastels everywhere.