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Review: 'The Florida Project' a breathtaking movie about homeless life around the Mouse

Get ready to fall in love with a movie and its pint-sized star.

Sean Baker's The Florida Project is a joyous tale of poverty, its desperation filtered through optimistic children unaware of what they're missing, living homeless in Walt Disney World's shadow.

Baker dedicates his movie to The Little Rascals, updating their Depression-era hijinks to post-recession pranks. Certainly his young find Brooklynn Prince's mug has a hint of Spanky MacFarland to it. Prince, age 7, is astonishing as Moonee, a pinball of sass living with her irresponsible mother in a budget hotel.

The Florida Project is a very funny, incredibly warm movie about what amounts to child endangerment. It earns its laughs, gasps and tears honestly, almost always keeping the kids distanced from unsavory situations. When that gap is bridged by a violent or protective act, the effect is devastating.

IN DEPTH: 'The Florida Project' movie explores the hidden homeless living around Disney World

Despite kicking off with Kool & The Gang's Celebration, The Florida Project is set a few miles and economic strata away from Disney's model community. During a hot summer, Moonee, her pal Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) run their own kingdom at the Magic Castle Inn, a three-story lavender L on the tourist strip.

Not a healthy place to raise kids even by the best of parents. Moonee's single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) isn't close to being one of those. We learn only as much about her as Moonee overhears or sees despite attempts to shield her, keeping with Baker's focus on childish perspectives. Halley makes endless bad moves in Moonee's best interests, more like her wayward sister than a mother.

CUTE OVERLOAD: A conversation with the 7-year-old Orlando stars of 'The Florida Project'

The village raising these kids is patrolled by Bobby the hotel manager played by Willem Dafoe. Bobby watches everything, weary but attentive, keeping the property and his flock of hard-luck tenants in line. Dafoe is terrific in a role gentler than his image until a stranger (Carl Bradfield) wanders too close to the kids.

Moonee never has a clue of what might have happened. Just as she doesn't know why Halley brings a strange man to their room, or why Bobby returns with him in a bad mood. Something about missing theme park wristbands like the ones Halley sold, like the knockoff perfume she sells outside resorts.

Moonee and her pals keep other things in mind: begging spare change for an ice cream cone to share, spying on an aged ex-stripper sunbathing topless by the pool, knocking out the hotel's power and flipping off helicopter tours buzzing overheard. The plot is as formless as these kids' attention spans, one impulsive adventure after another ended by reality.

Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe relish Kissimmee's kitschy color scheme and attention-grabbing architecture; Orange World (at least the northern hemisphere), a Twistee Treat stand, a looming gift shop wizard. It's a wonderland to kids like Moonee who at this rate will never be spoiled by the Disney experience.

Perhaps they already are, as Baker's startling final few shots suggest. That's after Prince with a single closeup has left us breathless, doing something emotionally that actors 10 times her age will envy. She's a extraordinary kid and The Florida Project is a remarkable movie.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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