Willem Dafoe, left, and Brooklynn Prince in "The Florida Project."

Willem Dafoe, left, and Brooklynn Prince in "The Florida Project."

/A24

The cheap motels come in garish pastels — pink, purple, mint green. They lie on the outskirts of Walt Disney World, but their squalor mocks the marketing savvy of the Magic Kingdom. The residents pay $35 per night for a bed and a chance to see a drug deal in progress or a pedophile lurking in the shadows.

But for the rambunctious, potty-mouth kids who dash and scam through The Florida Project, this is merely home. The Future Land Inn. Magic Castle. Arabian Nights. The names promise enchantment, and the kids make a playground of their dead-end surroundings. The Florida Project, the latest bit of Day-Glo grime from Sean Baker, is part triumph of the spirit, part hustle for survival. In Baker's vision, these tones don't clash, even when the colors do.

Our primary guide is Moonee, a precocious scamp played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince. Moonie lives with her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), who drifts blithely from one scheme to the next. That can mean selling wholesale perfumes for marked-up prices. It can also mean turning tricks out of her motel room, or stealing Disney World wristbands from a john and pedaling them to a newcomer tourist. Halley will not contend for any Mother of the Year awards. She's scarcely an adult herself.

Baker has a gift for finding the bristling humanity in characters surviving on the fringes of society. He showed this in his breakout film, Tangerine, a screwball street comedy about the transsexual underworld of Los Angeles. His films move fast and crackle with energy, a perfect combination for a story of nonstop kids running wild. Together with her two best friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), Moonie panhandles for ice cream money and takes delight in spitting on a neighbor's parked car. She's like Our Gang's Spanky, amped up for a restless, fragmented 21st-century world.

Most of the film's actors are nonprofessionals, with one notable and valuable exception. Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, a do-everything motel manager who tries to keep the circus under control and collect the rent on time. Sometimes he supplies muscle: He's the one who spots the pedophile and puts the fear of life in him. Dafoe gives The Florida Project a necessary touch of ballast, a steady and sympathetic hand that provides the film a chance to catch its breath. He's never seemed more relaxed and present; it's as if the movie's freewheeling structure lets him stretch his legs a little. He's the adult in the room, and the job suits him well.

Bria Vinaite, left, and Brooklynn Prince, center, who star in "The Florida Project," with the film's director, Sean Baker.

Bria Vinaite, left, and Brooklynn Prince, center, who star in "The Florida Project," with the film's director, Sean Baker.

Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post

It's tempting to compare The Florida Project to one of Harmony Korine's kids-in-trouble films, say, Kids, or Gummo. But Florida doesn't have the shock morbidity of those movies. (A more apt tonal comparison, despite the difference in the characters' ages, would be Korine's Spring Breakers). The Florida Project has a way of keeping its chin up through bleak circumstances. This quality is much to the point: Shut out of the official Magic Kingdom, these tykes create one of their own. Still, at times, I found myself wishing for a little more consequence, for reasons less moral than dramatic. At a certain point, it gets hard to buy poverty as a romp.

Then again, Baker is among the few filmmakers eager to portray economic imbalance at all. The Florida Project's mischievous gambit, of focusing on the hangers-on next door to a sprawling, cash-consuming tourist trap, is also its most stinging statement. The setting brings to mind Katherine Boo's nonfiction classic Behind the Beautiful Forevers, in which Mumbai slum dwellers eke out an existence in the shadow of luxury hotels. These are stories of painful contrast, between luxurious fantasy and hard reality. The playground of The Florida Project is dirty and dangerous, but its inhabitants, like anyone else, still need to play. This film gives them room to do just that.

The Florida Project (B+)

Directed by Sean Baker. R (for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material). 115 minutes. At the Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano.

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