• by Wes Singleton

The Florida Project, A-

Rated R, 115 minutes

The superb, winning new low-budget indie film "The Florida Project" is an honest take on unconventional childhood. From the director the acclaimed "Tangerine," it's filled with humor, dark moments and a few breakout performances you're likely to see again come awards time.

Set on a stretch of highway just outside the imagined utopia of Disney World, it follows precocious six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her rebellious young, single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) over the course of a single summer. The two live week to week at “The Magic Castle,” a budget hotel managed by the stern yet kindly Bobby (Oscar-nominee Willem Dafoe), and trouble seem to follow them both.

"The Florida Project" is a compelling mix of humor and sadness, brilliantly directed by Sean Baker of "Tangerine" fame and co-written by Baker and Chris Bergoch and memorably brought to life by its mostly unknown cast. Set in a dumpy Florida hotel near Walt Disney World in Florida, the low-budget film is a stark reminder that not everyone has it as good as you do, making some of life's simplest pleasures - like an ice cream cone or a jelly sandwich - even more satisfying when you can get them.

The highlight of the film is the unaffected performances from the child actors, led by the utterly charming, bossy Brooklynn Prince in her film debut, along with newcomers Christopher Rivera and Valeria Cotto as her friends Scooty and Jancey, respectively. The best moments come when the film follows the kids around as they explore, get into trouble and find a way to get ice cream when you don't have much money (note: begging always helps).

Newcomer Vinaite is also endearing as her tattooed mother, who wants the best for her child, even making many poor decisions in the process. The most familiar face here is Dafoe, in one of his best performances, cast against type as the nice guy who wants others to abide by the rules but also wants to be protective of many of his tenants, especially the children (his best scene: watching out for the kids from an obvious predator).

The last act of "The Florida Project" becomes a little too soapy and overly dramatic, but that poignant ending, with one last burst of childhood happiness before facing stark reality and which Baker filmed himself inside Walt Disney World on an iPhone without the park's permission, is one that will stay with you.

If you enjoy small independent films that give voice to the forgotten, then the superb, realistic and captivating "The Florida Project" is definitely for you. And you'll definitely be seeing the likes of Prince, Vinaite and Dafoe again when they start handing out film awards.

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