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The Florida Project

The Florida Project

However one feels about Sean Baker’s films, it’s difficult to fault his dedication to telling stories about people living on the fringe of society.

Building on the critically-lauded tale of L.A. transgender prostitutes in his breakthrough feature Tangerine, Baker puts the “let’s make a movie entirely on iPhones” gimmick behind him and elevates his technical prowess on The Florida Project, an examination of transient residents living in hotels close to Disney World.

Steady camerawork aside, from a storytelling and acting perspective the film is another endurance test with primarily unlikeable and irredeemable characters, plus little plot of which to speak beyond wondering how long these folks’ desperate current existences will last.

A strong argument for birth control, the film centers on unaccompanied children Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) running around and causing trouble — a schtick that gets old fast as there’s simply only so much acting range these young amateurs are capable of conveying.

Scattered humor of the Kids Say the Darndest Things variety helps, but has short-lived appeal and isn’t helped by their parental units.

Ranging from deadbeat — Moonee’s mom Halley (Instagram celebrity Bria Vinaite) — to simply spread thin and doing the best they can — Scooty’s mom Ashley (Mela Murder, a contender for the most anti-Asheville name possible) — these mothers convincingly get across their individual struggles, but are fairly one-dimensional and quickly becomes taxing presences.

The anchor throughout The Florida Project is Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, a hotel manager with a heart of gold (within reason). Willing to put up with more drama than most people in his situation, Bobby’s genuine concern for the less fortunate contrasts nicely with his guests’ not so altruistic ways and the sequence of him dealing with an unwelcome visitor is scene-of-the-year level terrific.

Two brief appearances by Caleb Landry Jones as an acquaintance of Bobby — maybe even his son — who helps him with maintenance issues that are outside the operating budget go far in establishing Bobby’s connection with the outside world and hint at his larger story (which would be worth developing).

The exchanges also helps the case against stereotyping Jones as a wacko, which he’s already perfected this year in Get Out, War on Everyone, and American Made. (He’s also in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.)

Following Bobby also yields a few stunning sights, foremost one of him enjoying a cigarette on the top floor balcony as the outdoor lights awaken in unity at dusk, and eventually has him cross paths with I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore writer/director Macon Blair, making an amusing cameo.

But while Baker and Blair are allies, the latter’s inclusion draws an unintentional comparison between the two and illustrates the gap that separates The Florida Project from Blair’s remarkable directorial debut, which shares none of this film’s flaws and shines just as bright a spotlight on cinematically under-represented humans.

Grade: C-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse

(Photo: A24)

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