‘The Florida Project’ review: One of the best films about childhood

Directed by Sean Baker

Starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Caleb Landry Jones

Rated R

Playing at Angelika Film Center, AMC Loews Lincoln Square

Few movies about children capture the very essence of youth, the precious intersection of innocence and wonder that so often co-exists along the margins of a darker reality.

“The Florida Project” joins classics such as Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” in that rarefied space. It’s another miraculous achievement by the filmmaker Sean Baker, who has carved out a unique identity thanks to his aptitude for creating compelling and emotionally affecting dramas depicting little-seen worlds while utilizing unconventional methods.

The filmmaker shot his last movie, “Tangerine” — about a transgender sex worker in Los Angeles — entirely on a handful of iPhones.

“The Florida Project” is set in and around a rundown motel on the outskirts of Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and it centers on 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who lives there with her troubled mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), and idles away her summer with a close friend who lives on the floor below her and others in an adjoining motel.

Their home — the Magic Castle Motel — is operated by the sympathetic Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who tolerates the whimsical malfeseance of Moonee and her friends, and shows a great deal more patience than most in his position might for the manifold challenges Halley brings to his doorstep.

This is an extraordinarily difficult balancing act, in which the filmmaker presents the world of these children as his primary focus — with scenes of scampering through fields, playtime in different rooms and antics involving everything from ice cream and spitting on cars. The camera keeps low, affixed to the perspective of its little protagonists, and so the enormous signs for gun stores and sprawling chain restaurants, the Disney gift shops and orange-shaped stores that fill the landscape of the expansive boulevard housing the motel, take on a measure of surreal majesty. They are at once larger-than-life and signifiers of a world these kids live in but don’t yet understand.