Nothing says "unforced realism" more than a narratively shapeless slice-of-life snapshot of impoverished kids wandering around in beatific innocence of their own suffering; all the way back to 1946's Shoeshine and 1948's Bicycle Thieves, child non-actors floating in front of the camera, guileless in their moral comfort, have been a mainstay of the form. It's been a little while since we've gotten a really prominent example of the genre, and I suppose it's stretching the definition of "prominent" almost all the way till it breaks to apply that word to The Florida Project, director Sean Baker's examination of a group of children in a community that has formed out of the desperately poor individuals and families living their lives one week at a time in the garishly-colored, optimistically-named motels tenaciously clinging to life in Kissimmee, Florida.

It's the town that hosts the bulk of the most transparently parasitic tourist-gouging in the economic gravity well created Walt Disney World (which was, as you might know, referred to as "the Florida project" internally during its initial planning stages), such as the bright purple and yellow monstrosity called Magic Castle, where most of the film's action takes place. It's also potentially the ugliest single town in the state of Florida, which is home to most of the ugliest architecture in North America, and the most extraordinary thing about The Florida Project is how Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe transform the tacky plaster eyesores despoiling the marshy landscape - gift shops in the shape of giant wizards, ice cream shops in the shape of giant soft-serve cones - into almost painfully beautiful tableaux of color, lines, and ethereal fantasy.

That's all in service to the film's project of completely ignoring adult context in favor of depicting the point of view of its six-year-old protagonists, most particularly Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). She lives in the Magic Castle under the mostly unwatchful eye of her destitute mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who attempts to hawk perfume to dumb tourists in the parking lot of a nearby resort; most of her days during this unstructured summer are spent running from this corner of Kissimmee to that corner with her friend and downstairs neighbor Scooty (Christopher Rivera), or with Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives with her mother and younger sister at the next hotel over. As we watch the kids run madly from one place to the next, we start to get the ingredients to form a picture of the motel inhabitants, most of whom begin to take shape through repeated exposure more than because we are ever given specific knowledge of what they're up to; mostly, the person we get to know best is Bobby (Willem Dafoe, the only professional actor in the main cast, though Macon Blair and Caleb Landry Jones show up for small bits), the motel manager, who talks like a harsh by-the-books cop, but transparently softens any time that any member of his ad hoc family needs a little help or sympathy.

Whatever the praise that has been steadily accruing to the film since its Cannes debut, I really don't see what about The Florida Project is particularly fresh or different other than Florida setting itself. And perhaps the specificity of these particular child characters: they're unusually loud and manic and full of pent-up energy that manifests in a lot of running and jumping and poking into various corners of the Kissimmee landscape, a far cry from the more solemn, sullen children who tend to be trotted out in these neo-neorealist stories. I'll just out myself as a monster: I don't much like kids, loud ones especially, and The Florida Project is a borderline-unendurable 111 minutes if you don't much like loud kids (Hal Roach's "Our Gang" series gets a shout-out in the credits, and I will happily and proudly declare that "Our Gang was crappy enough in the '30s and '40s and by no means need to be reinvented for the 2010s).

But that does leave us with the film's sense of place, which is exemplary and unimpeachable: the way that Zabe frequently frames the horizon low in the frame provides a stunning sense of grandeur and size to every location no matter how quotidian and grubby. It's an intoxicating, rich depiction of the bold Florida sun and the eye-searing colors of Florida's human population: it oddly resembles nothing so much as The Grand Budapest Hotel done in a shambolic improvisational mode, which sounds like a contradiction right up until you see it at play in the movie.

Now, the question that this perhaps brings up: should it do that? This is a movie about blistering poverty, after all, and while the reason for the style is clear as crystal (Moonee experiences everything with an unfiltered sense of dazzled awe, and we experience everything precisely as she sees it, even when we're seeing things she's unaware of, or can make surmises she'd never be able to - I am especially but not only thinking of a scene where Bobby briskly, quietly deals with a passing pedophile, one of the highlights of Dafoe's wonderful performance), that doesn't change my vaguely suspicious feeling that this is just gorgeous poverty porn. Not overtly so, not obviously: I'm sure Baker thought that this was doing something important and profound in bringing these lives to life. But the uniformly awful performances of every non-Dafoe adult doesn't do much to suggest that we're watching real human beings, and the result is less a study of poverty than a study of childhood whimsy that uses poverty as a backdrop.

That being said, it's a largely very good study of childhood whimsy, if not by any means a groundbreaking one. It's easy to make too much of the "impoverished kids in the shadow of Disney" angle - and many critics have been eager to do so - but there's something about the inherent crassness of central Florida mixed with the enormous good cheer of Moonee and company that picks up a slight ironic edge. Coupled with the precision of the images, and the vividness of certain individual scenes, that's enough to keep the film afloat through it's questionably tasteful exploitation of lower-class misery and the three-fifths of its narrative that have absolutely no shape or momentum whatsoever.

Lastly, a note on the film's very bold, very divisive ending: I hated it. The footage, in the space of a single cut, turns so shitty-looking that I wouldn't have been able to forgive it regardless of what that footage was depicting. That it was tonally-nonsensical horseshit that leaned into the Disney connection suddenly and without warning or purpose just seals it.