Inside ‘The Florida Project’ and Its 7-Year-Old Secret Weapon in the Oscar Race (Exclusive Video)

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This story about Brooklynn Prince and “The Florida Project” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Given that the simplest is usually the best, 7-year-old actress Brooklynn Prince has the perfect synopsis for her movie “The Florida Project” and the character she plays. “Moonee is a girl who lives in a motel,” she said. “She is struggling with her mom and getting into all kinds of trouble, but has lots of adventures.”

Her assessment checks out and then some in Sean Baker’s profound and bittersweet drama. Like the mischievous children who inhabit its world, the film has been jumping and twirling toward the Best Picture race since it premiered in the Director’s Fortnight program at Cannes in May.

Distributor A24 also returns to awards season after a triumphant Best Picture win for “Moonlight” last year, with this naturalistic look at the hidden homeless epidemic.

In “The Florida Project,” hundreds of families get by week to week huddled in dingy pastel structures nestled in the shadow of the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.

Theme parks made Disney a reported $4.38 billion last year, but the residents of these fringe communities sell perfume on the street, work double shifts at diners and do more debasing things to make ends meet — all while their pack of children look for cheap amusement, almost always unattended.

Photographed by Elisabeth Caren for TheWrap

When Moonee can be found at her lavender-colored motel, the Magic Castle, Prince’s young imp answers to her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley is an outspoken young woman who shifts instantly between rough-edged charm and acidic vulgarity.

Keeping watch over them and the other residents is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), a weary hotel manager who keeps the trains running as best he can for tenants living in the margins of life.

“When we got there to Florida, I set out for some kind of model, so I did fairly traditional research,” Dafoe recalled of the two weeks he had for prep before shooting began in 2016. “I met with people who had his kind of job and found one in particular who gave me certain hints about what kind of person has this job and where they may have come from. These guys have a terrific amount of pride in what they do, and there’s a root there for compassion.”

The trick, he found, was trying to strike a balance. “They have to press people for rent, keep things going, keep things in order. At the same time, they accept these people as members of a community.”

Indeed, Dafoe’s Bobby is always toiling. The vending machines are broken, the paint is chipping, only one of the three washing machines works, anther circuit breaker has blown …

These are the chores he navigates while pleasing an impatient owner, demanding rent payments and herding the unattended children out of his path. “He’s basically a paycheck away from being in their position,” Dafoe said. “It reminded me of the relationship between the people behind bars and the guards in a prison. The line is very thin, and they start to develop very interesting relationships. It’s a codependency that his happiness depends on their happiness.”

The Magic Castle can be an unmagical place: drug deals, prostitution, vice and domestic disputes run rampant in the halls. It’s not unfamiliar territory for Baker, who made waves with “Tangerine,” his award-winning 2015 drama about a night in the lives of transgender sex workers in Hollywood that was partially shot on iPhone.

Baker, a 46-year-old white male who grew up in suburban New Jersey, has a clear talent for relaying essential truths about underrepresented people. But in recent years, Hollywood has become increasingly sensitive to the importance of achieving diversity both in front of and behind the camera.

“This has become a major issue of late, especially in the age of think pieces,” said Baker. “Ownership over certain subjects, people who maybe come from places of more privilege than others and whether they should be allowed to tell [these] stories. This is something that, obviously, I struggle with all the time.

“The only thing we can do is take the most ethical approach possible,” he continued. “I’m not trying to be the voice in any shape or form. I’m simply trying to amplify the voice. We have to do it in a very responsible and respectful way.

“We have to consult with the communities we’re focusing on, we have to get approval over everything. Having them sign off on things like the script is extremely important.”

The director, in stark contrast to his disarming boyish quality, got fiery at the notion he would use communities like the one he depicts at Magic Castle for personal gain. “This isn’t a way of cashing in on a subject that can be exploited,” he said. “These [movies] aren’t calling cards to Hollywood.

“I’m not trying to get the next Marvel film by doing this. I’ve reached the age where I’ve realized I’m lucky enough to have this platform, and I want to use it for the right purposes.”

Dafoe praised his director as unsanctimonious, saying he was “very good at mixing the real elements with invented elements. It shows you the way. It’s not like you’re wagging your finger and telling people how things are. You’re letting them happen organically.”

For her research, first-time actress Vinaite spoke to real women living in the rundown motels for a deeper understanding of their lives and circumstances. “As much as they were struggling, they were really kind of happy,” she said. “It put things into perspective for me. It made me realize that the things I stress out about are not terrible …. It opened my eyes and made me really understand [my character] as a person.”

Baker was anxious to avoid the overly earnest formula often used by movies on similar subjects. “One of the traps of a lot of these types of movies is they go down the road of everything being incredibly melodramatic,” he said. “There’s not one ounce of humor, everybody is sanctified and you get to a place where they’re not based in truth. You need to show how people get by — that some joy exists.”

A great deal of that joy is represented in Prince’s young character, whose backyard is a bustling series of motels and novelty gift shops. A spitting contest on the windshield of a car offers little kids the chance to have bragging rights throughout the halls.

The ornate, daily fireworks display over nearby Disney World looks no less majestic from the adjacent golf course her family breaks into to watch for a special occasion.

“If people could walk away and be less judgmental of others in situations they don’t necessarily understand, it would be amazing,” Vinaite said of the Halleys and Moonees of the world.

“We all judge people … It was eye-opening to be nicer and care more about people you might not normally pay attention to.”

One detail Baker was insistent on was zero exposure for his child actors to the very adult problems depicted in the film. Moonee encounters an older male predator, commits a pretty serious crime with her cohorts Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and a new neighbor named Jancy (Valeria Cotto) and lives in uncomfortable proximity to prostitution. 

“Brooklynn knew it was adult content, but we kept her in the dark about that stuff,” Baker said.

Another hurdle for the stars and families: “Profanity,” Baker said. “Early on, we said, ‘We love your children. We’d be honored to have them in our film, but please understand not only will they hear profanity, they will be uttering profanity.'”

The film is no less impactful in its sadness because the kids aren’t in on the heavy stuff. A final sequence that sees a visit from the police and child service officers effectively breaks the illusion that life in the motel is sustainable for an unsupervised child (or her struggling mother, for that matter).

But the biggest problem Prince and her director faced was a conflict over something very close to the pint-sized actor’s heart: ice cream. There are numerous sequences where Moonee and her pals hustle change from tourists so they can share big, dripping ice cream cones on the hot sidewalk or, to Bobby’s chagrin, on the pleather couches of the Magic Castle lobby.

Photographed by Elisabeth Caren for TheWrap

“We were using regular ice cream and, about a week in, we realized not only were they crashing, they were gaining weight,” said Baker. “By the end of the 35 days they were not going to fit in their costumes.”

“They switched to sugar-free ice cream,” said Prince, who was not happy about the change. She immediately went to her director, demanding, “Sean! How dare you! I need my daily calcium!”

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