Almost homeless in The Florida Project

Low-wage jobs don't stimulate communities. They just keep them afloat, transient, and in need of $38 motel rooms.

Halfway through The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s beautiful, melancholy, and inspiring new film, six-year-old Moonee takes her friend Jancey out into the swampy pastures of Kissimmee, Florida. Bewildered by seeing a herd of cattle, they bellow, “Mooo!!!” and giggle at the sound. “See, I took you on a safari,” Moonee says—another one of her accomplishments during her many unsupervised trips off the main highway. This momentary experience—much like the quilt of strangers that has brought them together—is authentic and inspiring and magical.

In other words, it is a fulfilling substitute for Animal Kingdom, the Disney attraction for which parents shell out so their kids might have the same kind of experience in a more contrived environment. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the film’s hero—or, more accurately, its princess—will never have the chance to compare the two experiences. She lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in the Magic Castle, a roadside, extended-stay motel that shelters similar families scraping to get by on the outskirts of Orlando. Halley struggles to find steady work along the strip, hustling tourists when she can and illegally selling cheap perfume outside country clubs. Un­attended and independent, Moonee takes pleasure in back-alley fun: spitting on cars, wandering through abandoned, candy-colored housing projects, and asking visitors for ice cream money.

Moonee and her mother represent a rarely portrayed population living in poverty—the almost-homeless. Baker’s film, which he cowrote with Chris Ber­goch, resists condescension or pity, and refuses to cast people as heroes or villains.