Starting with the giant retro neon sign marking its entrance, the Little Theatre seems like it’s baiting cinephiles. The independent movie theater was built in 1928. In one of the theater’s two buildings, a wall is covered in small movie posters. On another wall is a signed photograph of “Life Is Beautiful” writer-director-star Roberto Benigni.
In the other, non-neon-decorated building, the box office sits near the entrance of the Little Café, which hosts a rotation of musical acts five nights a week. (You can find the line-up on the Little Theatre’s website.)
Until trailers start, ads for local businesses play in a looping slideshow on the screen, ranging from cute to out-of-place. (I don’t personally like thinking about how porn addiction affects one’s marriage when I’m trying to enjoy my popcorn.)
Also advertised is the theater’s “Saturday Night Rewind” series, “a monthly 35mm film screening of genre flicks.” (Past screenings include “Pulp Fiction,” “Creepshow,” and “Robocop.”).
I went to the Little Theatre to see the new film, “The Florida Project”.
“The Florida Project” is about a community of marginalized, lower-class people living in a motel just off Disney World property. Most of the film is told through the eyes of a 4-year-old girl named Mooney (Brooklyn Prince), and shows her exploits with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and Dicky (Aiden Malik), which range from laughable to tragic.
One of the first things the movie seems to tell us is that “kids will always be kids.” Mooney and her friends are very disadvantaged. They have to leave the motel one day every month and search for a place to sleep so as not to establish residency. Mooney’s mother struggles and fails to gain employment. It is a lifestyle that should be a downer to watch, but watching these kids having a spitting contest on a car and sneaking around in an abandoned building is irresistibly fun.
It is often said that there need to be new voices heard, new people represented, in cinema. Director Sean Baker has, for the second time in a row, shown us what that looks like. His 2015 film, “Tangerine,” about two transgender prostitutes in Hollywood on Christmas Eve, showed viewers a world never seen before in movies . But “Tangerine” kills itself trying to be a comedy, and feels like a half-hour film stretched across 90 minutes.
“The Florida Project” is not presented as a comedy, though it has laughs, and fits into its 111-minute runtime nicely, though the film’s slow pacing can be frustrating.
Willem Dafoe strongly delivers as Bobby, the kind manager of the motel, but the character I want most to talk about is Halley, Mooney’s mother, played by Bria Vinaite. Halley is a young, loud, profane, bestie of a mom. As the film progresses, we begin to see Halley differently: unstable, prone to be rendered monstrous by her own circumstances and immaturity. But her place in this movie is such that she is not depicted scornfully like Margo Martindale’s despicable welfare queen mother in “Million Dollar Baby,” but instead humanized, making her monstrosity disturbing and sad rather than evil or hateful.
“The Florida Project” suffers from a tangential ending that made me feel like I’d spent two hours watching an ad for Disney World, which is frustrating in a film so good otherwise. “The Florida Project” is non-judgemental, unique, gorgeous, accessible, by turns tensely difficult and wildly enjoyable.