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‘The Florida Project’ is a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking ride

PHOTO PROVIDED “The Florida Project” is a story about Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her young Mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite). It tells the story of their struggles in the shadow of Walt Disney World.

There’s something special about 2017’s “The Florida Project.”

Although the film didn’t win any awards, it certainly makes its case. The film is set Kissimmee, Fla., in the shadow of Walt Disney World. That’s where we meet 6-year-old Moonee, who lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a motel called the Magic Castle. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and a few friends — Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik) — bounce around the area on a daily basis, wreaking havoc on guests. For example, when the film starts, we see them spitting on a car of a guest in nearby Futureland, another motel.

The Magic Castle is managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Bobby tries to keep his “guests” under control. It’s clear from the start that he has a soft spot for Moonee and Halley.

“The Florida Project” is not a feel-good movie. Halley has very few redeeming qualities. She smokes, drinks, feeds Moonee junk food and is, well, a terrible mother. We find out that Halley has lost her job as an exotic dancer, so she needs to do what she can to pay her weekly rent and keep her head above water. She sells perfume in parking lots around the hotel to make ends meet. As the film progresses, we learn that she is a scammer and part-time prostitute.

Your heart breaks for Moonee. We see so many sad scenes. Simply put, she doesn’t have a good life. She begs for money for ice cream, is up to all hours of the night and shares a bed with Halley. The two are a step away from being homeless, but Halley doesn’t care. She somehow manages to scrape together the rent every week and the two skate by.

While Moonee and Halley are certainly the key players here, Bobby is a close second. He’s extremely likeable and his tenants — for the most part — like him. They don’t always give him the respect he deserves, but we genuinely care about him. He has a dead-end job, a failed marriage and a son he pays to do part-time work, just to keep him close by.

Dafoe plays the role perfectly. It’s certainly a smaller role for him, but he knocks it out of the park. In fact, he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts.

Much like this year’s Oscar winner “Nomadland,” “The Florida Project” is a study in privilege and class structure. As Moonee and Halley struggle to make rent, pay for a meal and simply survive, they watch as tourists around them come into their town to enjoy the Magic Kingdom and all Walt Disney World has to offer.

Halley’s terrible parenting does not come without consequences. Around 15 minutes into the film, we know that Halley’s time with Moonee is tenuous at best. As the film progresses, we quickly see that Halley is unfit parenting a 6-year-old. Heck, she can barely take care of herself.

A couple of interesting facts about “The Florida Project” — there are helicopters flying in scenes a lot. Those helicopters don’t have any significance. Director Sean Baker had a limited budget (and time), so there was no way to get the helicopters to stop flying. Fun fact No. 2 — It’s called “The Florida Project” because that was the name of the blueprints for Walt Disney World.

Ultimately, “The Florida Project” will break your heart, but it certainly is a fascinating and gut-wrenching ride.

“The Florida Project” is rated R for adult language, mild violence and adult themes. It is available on Netflix, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video.

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Chris Morelli is a staff reporter for The Express.

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