From ‘The Florida Project’ to ‘Wonderstruck’, This Year’s Best Latino Roles Went to Kids

'Wonderstruck' still courtesy of NYFF55

There’s nothing quite like seeing a revelatory child performance on screen. Not the kind that seems ready-made in Hollywood backlots or on sitcom sets where childhood is so often an affectation that Angeleno kids have mastered in endless auditions. I mean the kind that truly shows us a talent-in-the-making precisely because there’s a sense their presence on screen might not be a performance at all. Thankfully, you don’t have to go far right now to see what I mean. Two films that had been making the festival rounds and are now playing in theaters across the U.S. boast some of the best child acting you’ll see on the big screen this year. More importantly, they feature some rising Latino talent we can’t wait to see in other projects soon.

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project doesn’t just have one of these performances. It has three. Critics and audiences may be rightly hailing the acting chops and charisma of its leading lady, Brooklynn Prince, but Baker has surrounded her with two equally adept kids, Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera. The follow up to his award-winning iPhone-shot film Tangerine, The Florida Project takes place in a chintzy purple-painted motel in the Sunshine State near Disney World. There, we follow as Moonee (Prince) spends her summer days ambling around and going on adventures with her friends Jancey (Cotto) and Scooty (Rivera).

Part of the joy of Baker’s film is the sheer wonder with which Moonee and her friends approach their every day. Whether eating an ice cream cone under the watchful eye of the motel’s owner (played by Willem Dafoe), who’s all too eager to kick them out lest they spill in between giggles, or throwing water balloons at tourists, these three kids make the most out of what they have. Soon, you begin to see this fake purple castle-looking building with the same kind of whimsy they do, even as the grown ups around them drink, smoke, and do the best they can to survive, oftentimes making choices that are questionable to those of us watching.

Cotto, who plays the newcomer, and Rivera, whose Scooty is a devilish troublemaker, make perfect co-conspirators with Prince. As Baker’s free-roaming camera follows them in the brightly saturated world around them, you see the glee that’s central to their performances. Hearing Rivera playfully ask a woman at a Twistee Treat hut for some money, telling her that “the doctor said we had asthma and we gotta eat ice cream right away!” as the camera stays on Cotto’s Vanessa who’s equally impressed and aghast at such begging, you get to witness exactly what it is Baker has captured. Namely, the spontaneity of a lived-in performance that speaks to issues of class in a way that refuses the miserabilism we so often associate with stories about low-income kids.

Just as Baker looked for nonprofessional actors to populate up his ode to a specific strata of Floridian childhood, Todd Haynes ended up giving a chance to an unknown actress to prove her talent in the black-and-white silent film portion of his latest work, Wonderstruck. Millicent Simmonds is impressive in her role as Rose, a deaf girl who wanders into New York City in the 1920s looking for her mother, a famous actress played by Julianne Moore. Yet the other half of the film, which takes place in the 1970s in a sweaty, disco-fueled New York, is anchored by two young actors you may have seen elsewhere. One is Oakes Fegley, who starred as Pete in Disney’s Pete Dragon.

And the other you’ll recognize as Rafe from Netflix’s The Get Down: Jaden Michael. Born to a Dominican family, the young actor plays bilingual Jamie in the film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s graphic novel about family secrets hidden and discovered at the Museum of Natural History. When Ben (Fegley) arrives in the city after suffering an accident that’s left him deaf in hopes of finding the father he never knew, it is Jamie who smuggles him into the museum where his father works, keeping Ben safe from harm. With his period-appropriate afro and a polaroid camera he carries around everywhere he goes, Jamie finds in Ben someone with whom he can finally share his quirks. Some of the best sequences in the movie’s 1970s section come courtesy of Jamie showing Ben around the museum, the two using the vast empty building at night as their own playground.

Much like Baker’s film, Wonderstruck is about the awe children bring to how they see the world. Anchored by two vastly different time periods and storylines that only come together in a dazzling stop-motion sequence towards the end of the film, Haynes’ ambitious tale soars on the strength of its child performers. Together, these two films remind us that stories about childhood need not be childish. And, more importantly, that these stories may finally be so inclusively told that they cut across race, ethnicity and class to tell truly American tales.

The Florida Project and Wonderstruck are out now in theaters in the US. The Florida Project will screen at the Los Cabos Film Festival.