Via 'The Florida Project,' meet two of the youngest stars in Cannes Film Festival history

Last week, two of the breakout stars of the Cannes Film Festival were looking to take a breather after a grueling session of interviews, press roundtables‎ and photo shoots. They decided to mark the moment with a toast.

"To a great drink," said Brooklynn Prince, who is 7.

"To a great trip," said Valeria Cotto, who is 6. The two clinked glasses, filled with Italian sodas of various fruity provenance, as the Mediterranean lapped at the beachside restaurant behind them.

The festival, which ended Sunday, often revels in and renews existing stars. Nicole Kidman, with four works in the official selection, became an adored fixture this year. But the gathering also has the ability to mint young personalities.

Even, in the case of the Florida natives Brooklynn and Valeria, really young personalities.

The girls are the stars of "The Florida Project," the new film from Sean Baker, writer-director of the indie sensation "Tangerine.” “Florida” centers on the so-called hidden homeless — members of the underclass who live in motels and other makeshift spaces. It’s set in a part of America rarely seen on screen: Baker cast from and shot in Orlando, in the counterpoising shadow of Walt Disney World. Though thousands of miles away, in distance and sensibility, from the “Wonder Woman” enthusiasm going on back home, the girls were nonetheless very much of the same shatter-the-ceiling mind-set.

Brooklynn plays the outgoing and at times obnoxious Moonee, who with her mother (Bria Vinaite) and best friend (Valeria’s Jancey) finds joy amid the bleak survivalism of the Magic Castle Motel and Futureland Inn they respectively call home. Moonee, Jancey and a third friend, Christopher, are often getting into trouble with pranks that can border on the delinquent. But they do it with winning mischief, thus remaining endearing throughout.

In its willingness to see the world radically from young people’s point of view, “The Florida Project” takes its cues from movies as varied as “E.T.” and “Kids,” and exists spiritually somewhere in between. Unlike the children in more burnished Hollywood enterprises, they act like‎, well, kids‎. The girls form alliances, act out with exuberance (and, sometimes, petulance), and follow their curiosity into trouble. They remain joyfully oblivious to the hardships of the adult world around them while occasionally — just occasionally — signaling a bracing awareness. Interested in character moments and episodes more than narrative arcs, the film wowed critics with its lived-in naturalism.

Driving that naturalism are the two young leads. As they fielded a barrage of questions from a table of a dozen reporters, Brooklynn and Valeria showed uncommon poise.

“What do your parents do?” a European reporter at a roundtable asked them.

“In the movie or in real life?” Valeria asked.

“Real life.”

“My mom sells tickets for events and my dad’s job is, he’s in a position, where he makes … furniture,” Valeria said, before clarifying it was upholstery.

“My dad’s a scientist and my mom's an acting coach,” Brooklynn said with practiced aplomb.

“You never told us your age,” a reporter said to Valeria.

“You never asked,” she replied, reasonably.

The tendency with actors this young is to assume they are merely playing themselves. But the characters and many moments in the film are carefully scripted, and the girls are legitimately acting.

“They’re doing what adult actors do, which is listening closely,” Baker said in an interview. “Even in improvisation, they’re receiving lines, and digesting them and spitting them out as character.” Both girls easily memorized the script, a point that will resonate for any parent who’s ever had a 6-year-old try to prepare for a spelling test.

Their polish came in part from on-set guidance, both from Baker and his partner, actress Samantha Quan, who worked with the children for a month before shooting, using a variety of kid-specific workshopping techniques. Quan would do things like bring the girls into a room and have them describe objects as though they were giving a museum tour, all with an eye toward preparing them to react spontaneously to their surroundings during shooting.

Finding the young actors wasn’t easy. Baker was ready to scrap the whole project for lack of a lead until Brooklynn came along, via a local casting agency. He was immediately taken with her confidence and her loose-limbed intelligence. Valeria was found in a less likely place: Target. Baker was doing a walk-through in the hope of locating a non-pro; when he spotted Valeria, he approached her mother and asked if she’d like to bring her daughter in for an audition.

Despite their closeness, the two girls are very different. Brooklynn is a natural extrovert, taking the hand of adults she just met, dropping in a French phrase she knows will impress, and describing her favorite Cannes activity as “going for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea.”

Valeria has a more studied and — if this can be said of a 6-year-old — darker personality, with a preternatural wisdom; several journalists who talked to her thought she was at least several years older.

“She’s a quirky kid,” said her mother, Ivelisse Rijos, as her kindergartner daughter name-checked books she liked, including the “Junie B. Jones” series, the standard-bearer for go-your-own-way childhood thinking.

Since making the movie a year ago, the girls have bonded and now regularly make the 40-minute trip across the Orlando suburbs for play dates.

At Cannes, they sat at a restaurant between photo shoots, hugging each other and talking about matters of the day.

“I like Daisy Ridley and Britney Spears, and Cara Devello, or whatever her name is,” Brooklynn said, as she gave her costar a big squeeze.

“Britney Spears isn’t an actress,” Valeria coolly replied.

“That’s true but I still like her. And Elle Fanning, of course,” Brooklynn said.

A handler told her Fanning had several movies at the festival.

“She’s here?” Brooklyn said, her eyes widening. “We need to leave right now and find her. No, really, let’s find her.”

Rijos wasn’t looking for a role for her daughter when Baker approached her in the Target; she in fact thought it was weird when the director handed her a card emblazoned with two chihuahuas, the logo of his production company. She was about to disregard it when an Internet search showed her it was the real deal.

Brooklynn’s parents were skeptical too, for a different reason: They’re people of faith and thought some of the profanities Moonee had to utter in the film weren’t in keeping with their values.

“There was some choice words and tumultuous language, and we were going to turn it down for that reason,” father Justin Prince said. “It was Brooklynn who convinced us she should do it.” The elder Prince, who works as an environmental scientist, grew up in a world not unlike that of the movie, living for a time in a trailer in a backyard behind his grandfather’s trailer in Ohio.

"I think she was happy to say some of those words because she doesn't get to say them at home,” said a laughing Vinaite, herself a non-actor who Baker found on Instagram, to a reporter.

Also of the grown-up world: a Cannes premiere. Nearly a thousand people the night before had watched in the hallowed theater of the Directors Fortnight section, where both girls had tears in their eyes as they acknowledged the crowd.

“I did cry last night, potentially,” Brooklynn admitted.

“I cried because there are some sad scenes and it brought back lots of memories of me and my friends,” Valeria added. At the after-party, both girls had taken over the dance floor, well past the fashionable Cannes hour of midnight. “Dance like nobody’s watching,” Valeria said and shrugged the following day.

Someone on a roundtable asked Vinaite what it was like to have such an important role in a movie as a first-timer.

“I was definitely nerve-wracked because I’d never acted,” Vinaite said.

“You were very good,” Valeria reassured her.

Though the word “precocious” comes to mind when talking to the girls, Baker was intent in the film on avoiding the trap of the old-soul young person. Indeed, much of “The Florida Project” feels a lot like peeking in on everyday children who think no adults are watching — impressive, given that on a set many dozens were.

“We’ve always had a very strong reaction to the kids you usually see in Hollywood films,” Baker said. “It always feels fake; it always feels stilted. We wanted to do the opposite of that.”

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That goal becomes more difficult circa 2017. As kids have cameras on them more than at any point in human history — never mind dreams of stardom drilled into their minds — a naturalistic portrayal becomes that much more difficult. Young people have more tools to star in a movie than ever before, but fewer ways to seem like real kids when they do.

“A lot of people asked us how we got Brooklynn to reach certain places,” Baker said of critical dramatic points in the film. “But most of the time she would just do it herself. Before [a big crying scene], someone on the crew came over to her and started talking. And Brooklynn says, ‘I have to focus right now because I’m about to cry.’”

“Brooklynn is probably the youngest Method actor you’ve ever met,” Quan added, laughing.

As the girls sipped on their Italian sodas at Cannes, they began debating not the craft but a more important subject: their favorite movies.

“’Star Wars,’ ‘Harry Potter’ — all the Harry Potters, obviously,” Brooklynn said. She ticked off some genre fare her family saw during a Halloween movie marathon.

“I watch the Disney Channel,” Valeria said.

A24 bought “Florida” at Cannes and is weighing when to release it. Brooklynn could well garner awards buzz if the “Moonlight” studio decides to put it out during the competitive heat of the fall. If she were to be recognized by Oscar voters, she would shatter by several years the record for youngest lead actress nominee, currently held by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was nearly 9½ when she was shortlisted for her turn in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in 2013.

Though Justin Prince said he was both intrigued and daunted by Oscar hullabaloo, his daughter was none the wiser.

In between interviews, the young girl walked up to a chalkboard at the restaurant that held the messages from film luminaries and put her own stamp on it. “Bonjour. I love Cannes. I am in France,” she wrote in a mixture of green and white lettering.

Brooklynn had put her entry right under one from the French director Claire Denis, another female trailblazer at the festival.

When the juxtaposition was pointed out, Brooklynn gave a curious look. "That's cool," the 7-year-old said, and maybe what was most cool was that she didn't realize how cool it was.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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