As a general rule, children can’t act—and that’s to the great advantage of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, because I’d be surprised if even a quarter of what its young heroes do on screen was heavily scripted or controlled. They are loose and unbound. Living in a low-rent hotel outside Orlando, their characters hock loogies, hustle for ice cream, go exploring, and act loud in the way children do when they’re sugar-high for attention (from the adults? from each other? from the camera?). Like The Spirit of the Beehive, say, the authenticity of their performances lies in the sense of reaction. And the unforgettable potency of the film—its mixture of energy and sadness—comes from the fact that we understand what their characters do not: that they are in dire straits, living at the bottom rungs of the American ladder with scant opportunities and parent figures who are at best impoverished and at worst criminally irresponsible. But playtime goes on, for as long as it can.

Sean Baker was last seen with 2015’s Tangerine, a screwball dramedy about transgender Los Angeles sex workers that he famously shot on an iPhone. It was one of the indie-world darlings of its year, and it attempted quite a high-wire act: that is, if you’re trying to film a screwball setpiece where one of the characters is a bruised, drug-addicted prostitute, don’t be surprised if laughter gets squashed in your throat—and I have to say, I admired the chutzpah of the attempt more than I felt edified by the results. But with The Florida Project, Baker nails the tone between comedy and grime that was so shaky in Tangerine. The balance is superb. The already-stylized colors of Florida, and the way Baker and company frame them, allow the film to feel grounded without settling for the uninspired visual shorthands that make so much social realism blur into indistinction. The narrative has the feel of impressionistic moments that came together in the editing room, but its little details and vignettes never lose sight of a constant forward motion. It dives into progressively tragic territory without getting mired in facile shock exploitation. The only time, I think, it overplays its hand is with the ending, which makes the symbolic irony of story—that all this doomed innocence is happening just outside of Disney World—too jarringly telegraphed. But the film primes you for that final moment so well that it bothers me less and less. This is one of the best movies about post-Great Recession American life, a film that, with a dextrous emotional palette, both captures and embodies the freedom of living over a bottomless pit. And Willem Dafoe, as the manager of cheap hotel near a tourist trap, may be the most admirably heroic character in a year that included the entire goddamned Justice League.

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