Mayhem reigns wherever Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), an irrepressible six year old, leads her friends. She is a little tornado of mischief, and has an answer for everything. Whatever trouble she concocts, her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) stands up for her.
Pull back, and the reality of their home is revealed. Moonee and Halley live in poverty in a cheap motel in Florida, just off a busy highway. The motel is called the Magic Castle. A lure for unsuspecting tourists, and a long-term dormitory for the dispossessed. In the distance, Disney World – the Florida Project.
When little Moonee goes too far, the motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), has a word with her mother. Halley turns to her daughter, with a beaming smile: “I failed as a mother Mooney!”. Moonee is in on her mother’s joke and retorts quick as a flash: “You’re a disgrace!”.
Moonee and her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) are out all day playing pranks and going off on escapades that would make the calmest of parents blanch. There are echoes here of the old black and white short movies from the 1920s and 1930s, The Little Rascals – except here the children are living in a setting of Florida pastels, colourful yet drab. The Magic Castle motel is painted in various shades of lavender and purple.
Despite their poor surroundings, this looks like an idyllic childhood. The children are not aware of the precarity of their lives, and how hard the adults around them strive to maintain that illusion. Halley is swan-like – gliding on the surface of things, yet paddling desperately to stay afloat. To make it from week to week, she takes increasing risks. Bobby watches powerlessly as the protective bubble Halley has created for her little girl looks increasingly fragile.
The film is remarkably unsentimental. Joy bursts out of almost every frame – Moonee and her friends are as annoyingly disruptive as they are wonderful. They leave adults powerless and ready to take refuge in a darkened room, with a cold compress on their forehead.
Brooklyn Prince, as Moonee, gives an extraordinary performance. She is all radiant recklessness, with a gift for making great friends – friends she then entices to do quite awesome and frightful things. Bria Vinaite, as Halley, is striking as a young woman who is in some ways a perfect mother – she understands exactly what she must protect in her child; her circumstances however work against her.
Two or three setbacks, the loss of a job, the loss of a friendship, and she teeters on the edge. She reacts with energetic fury. In one scene, she punches a friend hard and fast like the piston of an engine.
Meanwhile Willem Dafoe as building manager Bobby plays an immensely nuanced character; compassionate but compelled to be workmanlike, and alert to any dangers which may threaten the children around the motel. It is a great role, beautifully played. It is through his eyes that one understands better the gravity of Halley’s and Moonee’s situation. When the owner of the hotel visits for an inspection, and Bobby sounds deferential, it becomes clear that everyone at the motel lives in a state of precarity, including Bobby. There is no safety net.
As with his previous film, Tangerine, Sean Baker has assembled a cast which prominently includes non-actors. His direction is a remarkable feat – the performances are so immediate and vivid. They are compelling and however cute the children are, somehow no-one lapses into cuteness. This is a very different kind of social realism – there is no miserabilism, no-one is patronised, and no-one stops to feel sorry…
The final scenes are tremendous. Instead of stumbling, Moonee soars. This is an affecting but completely un-soppy film. It’s a lemon sherbet to the power of ten.
Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Cinematography: Alex Zabe
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones
Originally published on myfilmclub.co.uk, November 2017