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Made for next to nothing, ‘The Florida Project’ is a big surprise

“The Florida Project” is a low-budget narrative film about low-income families living on the margins of society, just outside the doors of Disneyworld, in fact.

More reviews from Tom Tangney

But rather than being a depressing document of social realism focusing on the ravages of poverty, this movie is a full-bodied embrace of the joys of childhood, regardless of its circumstances.

It’s often said that poor kids don’t realize they’re poor and that is definitely the case with 6-year-old Moonee. She lives with her young single mom in a cheap motel and whiles away the endless hours of summer with a couple other motel kids.

They roam free between the various motel complexes along the highway, exploring to their heart’s content. It may be the backwater of all backwaters, but to Moonie, the world is full of possibilities. A nearby pasture full of cows becomes a natural safari, a surprise rainbow leads to a hunt for a pot of gold, and an abandoned building turns into an imagined dream house. And she’s not above hitting up the tourists.

“Excuse me, miss. Could you give us some change please we need to buy ice cream because we don’t have any money, we just have five cents. And the doctor says we have asthma and we gotta eat ice cream right away.”

“My doctor too!”

Tourist: “Guys …”

“We’re not lying.”

Tourist: “It’s fine.”

“Thank you very much!”

The way these three kids share a single ice cream cone, the way they luxuriate in each swooping lick, reveals their unadulterated delight in their good fortune.

Of course, kids on their own can get into trouble, and Moonie’s mom, Halley, often hears about it from Bobby, the motel manager.

Motel manager: “It’s only the second week of the summer and there’s already a dead fish in the pool.”

“We were doing an experiment. We were trying to get it back alive!”

Manager: “And water balloons thrown at tourists?”

“They didn’t tip us!”

Mom: “Are you serious? Oh my god, this is unacceptable. I’ve failed as a mother, Moonie. You’ve disgraced me.”

“Yeah mommy, you’re a disgrace.”

As idyllic as Moonie’s life may seem to her, her Mom’s life is anything but. She’s barely scraping by economically, often turning to sketchy and/or illegal activities.

By most societal norms, Halley is a terrible mother who doesn’t properly see to her child’s safety or welfare. But to Moonie, she’s a great mom who not only devotes her life to her but interacts with her in ways most moms don’t have the time for.

For instance, one night, she hitchhikes — that’s right, hitchhikes — with Moonie and Moonie’s new best friend to a grassy spot on a hill in order to celebrate the friend’s birthday. After they all split a birthday cupcake, they look up into the night sky and witness with unbridled delight a fireworks show from nearby Disneyworld. A perfect birthday present.

It’s moments like these that Moonie will have to cherish in order to get through the gathering darkness that’s beginning to loom around her and her mom.

Made for next to nothing ($2 million) and with a mostly non-professional cast (Willem Dafoe is the only recognizable name), “The Florida Project” is one of the best surprises of 2017. It’s an affirmation of life in the face of real difficulties.

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