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kate taylor

In the queues of festival-goers snaking around the TIFF Bell Lightbox, I don't suppose there are many people who have ever lined up at a food bank. With single tickets for the Toronto International Film Festival selling for $20 or more, it seems safe to presume there aren't any patrons who are struggling to pay their weekly rent at a welfare hotel. But inside the movie theatre, audiences may encounter many people in dire straits.

My TIFF 2017 dance card was packed with movies built around characters who were marginalized and impoverished. There were two films located in flop houses and two where women took up – or were forced into – prostitution, while men turned to crime or violence. In another, the characters lived in squalor on a run-down sheep farm. Some of these people were resilient and inventive, but all of them were vulnerable; many characters were emotionally or physically abused.

Several were also sexually assaulted, although not usually on screen.

All of these films had artistic merit, many were created by directors endowed with admirably unwavering visions of what stories they wanted to tell and how they wanted to tell them. Yet, in a festival setting, the cumulative effect of all that pathos can be disheartening; you begin to feel more exhausted than enlightened, more annoyed than empathetic.

That is why The Florida Project stood out so strikingly from the crowd: Sean Baker's drama is set in a welfare motel in the shadow of Florida's Disney World and centres around six-year-old Moonee (played by the remarkable Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), a 22-year-old unemployed lap dancer. Their situation is becoming increasingly desperate and Baker's film is filled with telling moments: At one point, Moonee asks why there is no pepperoni on the takeout pizza they are eating on the bed in their cramped room, to which her mother replies, "Pepperoni costs money."

But often the film is a comedy because Baker was inspired by the Our Gang movies, those Little Rascals shorts of the 1920s and 1930s. He devotes at least half of The Florida Project to the antics of Moonee and her friends, the other kids who live in the motel and in a similar one next door. They spit on cars from balconies; they catcall a nude sunbather; they have contests to see who can produce the best arm farts. And they scrounge change from passersby to buy ice cream or push their way to the front of the line when the mobile food bank comes to visit. Their energy is irresistible, and the inattentive Halley emerges as a loving and sympathetic mother even if she is uninterested in policing Moonee's hijinks – and can't provide the essentials of life.

The original Little Rascals films date to a period when it was still acceptable to sentimentalize poverty both in the cinema and in literature. All those urchins and orphans were children we would now call street kids or youth at risk. Today, Hollywood only sentimentalizes wealth, enshrining movie characters in leafy neighbourhoods full of picturesque houses with sparkling kitchens, while depictions of real poverty are often left to the independent movie maker.

It's a tricky thing to brings audiences to those indie films. Talking about his film at TIFF this week (in an interview which will appear in fuller detail in these pages when The Florida Project is released commercially), Baker called his job a balancing act: "If you go one degree off in one direction or another, the film could be very disrespectful, very insulting. We are trying to show the real humour of life, that people use humour to cope with pain."

His talk of balance made me think of another TIFF title, Stronger, about Jeff Bauman, the man who had both legs blown off by a terrorist bomb at the Boston Marathon in 2013. Despite an uplifting Hollywood ending, that film concentrates on Bauman's working-class Boston surroundings and especially the character of his foul-mouthed, hard-drinking mother. Family screaming matches are used as comic relief in the film. I thought director David Gordon Green pulled it off, thanks mainly to a spectacular performance by Miranda Richardson as the mother, but there's a knife edge between giving an audience a break from a gruelling story and simply mocking the family's hard-scrabble existence.

Baker, meanwhile, said he learned the importance of comedy from his last film, Tangerine, about two transgender sex workers in Hollywood: "When we applied a comedic style, we reached a greater audience." He still gets messages about the 2015 movie from viewers telling him they never would have thought they could relate to such outsider characters.

You could complain that The Florida Project is politically naive; there are no villains in the movie in which Willem Dafoe plays a hugely sympathetic motel manager. Halley is a victim not of a system but of circumstances.

But viewers will not be able to turn away from this film in despair. So, as The Florida Project floats out of TIFF on a wave of goodwill and begins to touch audiences across North America, it is possible it will be the catalyst for changes that might actually help the hidden homeless of Florida.

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell bring Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool to the Toronto Film Festival.