Brooklynn Kimberley Prince, left, and Bria Vinaite in The Florida Project (Directors’ Fortnight)

Sass: to act impudently (with cocky boldness or disregard of others).

That’s the predominant action of a young white single mother and her six-year-old daughter, living just miles from Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The title refers to the creation of the gigantic amusement park, which transformed a sleepy agricultural town into a major tourist destination. The duo resides in a budget motel among other residents who, like them, are one bounced rent check away from living on the streets.

In the film’s more convincing first half, co-writer/director Sean Baker has crafted a modern-day “Our Gang,” with six-year-old Moonee (played by a remarkable live wire, Brooklynn Kimberley Prince) as the Spanky McFarland counterpart—that is, if any of the tykes from the Hal Roach 1930s comedies dropped F-bombs, panhandled, and thumbed their noses at authority. Indeed, the film opens with Moonee and her best friend-for-the-moment, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), spitting from the second level of a motel onto a car parked below. Not just one or two wads of phlegm; they douse the windshield with saliva.

More to the point, ringleader Moonee is arrestingly funny, if for no other reason than her audaciousness, which impresses the hotel manager, even when some of the pranks the kids pull off are at his expense. As played by Willem Dafoe, Bobby observes the comings and goings of Moonee and her mother, and becomes a stand-in for the audience. Set in a different key from the rest of the cast, Dafoe’s performance is the only understated element in the entire movie.

Initially, the film gives off a high-energy, anarchic charge before the buzz wears off and the tone takes on a more somber turn. In doing so, the movie’s vibrant slice-of-life vignettes turn the kitchen-sink genre on its head. Baker and his team don’t impose layers of bleakness, though the circumstances may otherwise call for it; instead, the tone is far removed from the working-class miserablism of the European art house. In fact, the movie kicks off to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” which sets the mood, at first.

This is because Baker allows his cast to cut loose and improvise. Moments with Moonee and her two cohorts—which eventually include the new girl to the hotel scene, the timid and introverted Jancey (Valeria Cotto, another natural)—have the anything-goes flow of real kids at play as the kids go from one shiny object to another: pleading for money from strangers at the Twistee Treat to buy an ice cream cone or breaking into a boarded-up, foreclosed condo.

As for Moonee’s mom, Halley, unemployed and in her early 20s, Halley is a card-carrying wild child, with blue-and-teal-streaked hair, piercings, and multiple tattoos across her legs, arms, and chest. She’s like the older cool mean kid in high school who holds court while smoking in the bathroom and more like her daughter’s best friend, in one romp after another, rather than a boundary-setting elder. Together they act out in a big box store, jumping up and down in the aisle as they play with party favors, just one example of a symbiotic relationship in which the line between the adult and child is blurred to the point of erasure.

For the role of Halley, Baker found clothing designer Bria Vinaite on Instagram. This is her first acting work, and she gives a nearly feral performance. Along with sassing, mother and daughter manipulate, attack, and threaten, and are given plenty of room to indulge in these behaviors.

Filmed on-location in the bright, hazy, humid sunlight, with chirping katydids providing a soundtrack, the lazy summer afternoons ooze from the screen. However, there’s not a chance for viewers to fall into a slumber as the high-voltage energy given off by Prince demands full attention. Mainly, though, Baker shuns opportunities for stillness or silence, opting for hot-house histrionics instead.

In fact, Moonee and Halley are never given down time. Everyone is always “on.” The director seems to have captured the pint-sized cast at a height of a sugar rush, with no crash in sight. There are times, though, that the antics derive not from the characters’ needs but from the actors playing for the camera: a burping competition between mother and daughter or when both Scooty and Moonee twerk for Halley’s amusement. (Oh, Miley, what have you wrought?)

Though the film credibly builds up the bond between Moonee and Halley, it’s in the depiction of the mother that it reveals its limitations. The screenplay takes the idea that Halley’s a child at heart and runs it into the ground. A viewer may watch the film in any order, or 20 minutes here and five minutes there, and know everything the filmmakers have to say about Halley, to the point where her reactions become routine and the direction repetitive as Vinaite ferociously clings to the same traits since the actress is given little room to move. Emotionally, Halley narrowly runs the gamut from angry to belligerent. Calm is not in her vocabulary. The film never peeks behind her formidable exterior, beneath all the swearing, violence, and yelling. It takes the easier route.

As a result, Halley is rude, confrontational, impulsive, egocentric, intimidating, and sensationalistic—watch what she does with a panty liner. The Florida Project practically follows reality TV’s template of confrontational, roller-coaster story lines; the only thing missing here is wine thrown in someone’s face.

That said, the rat-a-tat pace made this one of the more economically told movies at the Cannes Film Festival, where many of the selections were too long (even the good ones, like the top-prize winner, The Square) or slavishly imitative in style, such as Lynne Ramsay’s New York–set crime fantasia You Were Never Really Here. It’s boisterous while the other films were more reserved. Little wonder then that The Florida Project became the most talked about American film there.

Additionally, it’s a significant upgrade from Baker’s Tangerine, though equally high-pitched—the more tense the situation, the louder the yelling. In the earlier film, infamously and distractingly shot on cell phones, the actors were all-out drama queens trapped in a barely-there plot with an incredulous sitcom ending. The storytelling in Florida is much smoother and sparse, though there is still enough drama and attitude to spare.

The Florida Project was picked up by A24 and given the plum awards season release date of October 6. No doubt it will gain more attention during the early fall festival circuit, but be forewarned: bring Advil. You’ll need it.