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The Florida Project: The Underside of the Rainbow at NYFF

How wondrous and how terrifying is the life of a child?  It can be harrowing under the best of circumstances and downright appalling when things take a sharp turn for the worse.

Supernaturally imaginative wunderkind Sean Baker, whose “Tangerine” swept through numerous critics awards two years ago like the headlong sashay of a diva on a mission, has returned with an equally astounding film. “The Florida Project” has the same raw aesthetic and drive-by immediacy of his debut that was famously shot on an iPhone. Except that this is a major upgrade. Its rainbow-hued world of acidic unreality was incredibly filmed on lush 35 mm, busting with vibrancy and film grain, and saturated with life.

Shot in and around some of the derelict slums not far outside Disney World (you knew they had to be there) it shows us what happens when the wizards of a magic kingdom suck all the enchantment out of a region to erect an enclave of bright castles, leaving a landscape of decay and devilry on the neglected fringes. Worse, the scariest thought of all, there are children left on the wrong side of the wall who have to navigate this no-mans land. I’m hard-pressed to remember a film more harshly formidable and edgy ever presented by the NYFF, but here this grueling beauty emerges, front and center, in all its tawdry glory.

“The Florida Project” (an early corporate code name for Disney World when it was first being conceived) makes an apt phrase for contrasting that manufactured paradise with the squalid yet mesmerizing setting of this incredible new film, which will rock your world, I’m telling you. Living on the fringes of polite society, as I sometimes have, I can verify the stark authenticity that cuts through every frame of this modern classic, as painful as it is glorious.

The excruciating joy of observing the seemingly doomed bond between an impoverished and extravagantly tattooed single mother and her adorably plump daughter reminded me of another recent Southern family chiller, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Tyro filmmaker Behn Zeitlin bet all his chips in 2012 on the performance of another brilliant six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, who had never acted before, and she ended up with a nomination for Best Actress. That such an unusually intimate film was nominated for Best Film and Director as well is evidence that the Academy is open to rare flavors beyond the standard Oscar fare. (Though Quvenzhane would lose the Oscar to someone named Jennifer Lawrence, she did take home a couple of dozen other prizes in 2012 and the following year appeared in the milestone Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave.)

The prodigious youngster who lights up the “The Florida Project” is the equally astonishing Brooklynn Prince. As Moonie, she screeches her way through the beginning of the film in a frightening imitation of her screen mother, the foul-mouthed and horrifying Halley (Bria Vinaite’s screen debut, as well). Moonie’s mom is quite possibly a textbook sociopath and her behavior is so appallingly awful that you know no good can come of the downward spiral in which they are trapped. As Halley inflicts all manner of damage on herself and her daughter alike, we witness a ghastly hilarity unfold in a garish motel from hell.

Somehow keeping a lid on this pressure cooker is Bobby, the manager of this gaudy mad house. It’s a role that calls for a professional crisis-handler, so director Sean Baker enlists (for the first time?) a consummate scene-stealing professional. Willem Dafoe does superlative work here, bringing a lifetime of wizened compassion to bear on corralling these wildcats while he tries to keep this crummy business afloat. If his endless patience for the dreadful Halley is because he’s got a warm spot kept lit by her flaming outburst, our only hope is that he has a fire extinguisher handy.

What a perpetual powder keg. At times, Vinaite’s Halley strident tirades are so vile, even her tattoos seem to be screaming. It’s not as if Moonie is an angel either — far from it — but at least we can see what made her this way. That’s probably a large part of the reason why Bobby keeps cutting her and her mother unbelievably generous slack.

Perversely named The Magic Castle, this pale fuchsia motel is inhabited by far more mothers than fathers, and overflows with scruffy children. Each single mom is living a hardscrabble life, struggling to pay the weekly rent and find ways to feed the kids. It’s not a lot different from the relentless strife and turmoil of inner-city housing projects, with their daily eruptions of violence. Here the weather is better, but don’t think it’s not every bit as grim as any other urban chamber of horrors. If anything, the mockery of palm trees swaying in the distance only makes the sunlit vistas more nightmarish.

There’s an incredible scene that illustrates of one of the poignant pluses of living across the street from the Magic Kingdom. Whenever there’s a fireworks display at Disney World, the disadvantaged families across the street can see and enjoy the whole show for free.

Although we think we can figure out where this is headed, the way it gets there is unsettling enough to keep us anxious. The inescapable threat of homeless eviction and the fear of losing her mother to god knows what is forever on Moonie’s mind, and it’s on ours, too, as we come to care for this poor, but plucky child. By the end of the film (which isn’t exactly happy — or is it?), Moonie has ascended to her well-earned place alongside all the great and tragicomic orphans of history, from Oliver Twist to curly-red-haired Annie. You may say, “Hey, Moonie can’t be an orphan if she has a mother,” but when you see what she faces in “The Florida Project,” you might feel that she’d been better off abandoned. The unexpected ways that fate steers their trip is what holds this hilariously electric tale together, and for all its wry twisted misery this is a journey that’s worth it.