Not far from the gates of the Walt Disney World Resort, where families are promised enchanted escapes and fun and magic, and where day tickets start at a cool $99 a person, is a discount motel called the Magic Castle.
It’s painted in garish shades of lavender and amethyst, right down to the street curbs. The ice machine is broken. The washer and dryer often are, too. It costs $38 a night. And it is home for a young mother, Halley, and her 6-year-old daughter, Moonee, in director Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” a transcendently beautiful, funny, heartwarming (and heart-wrenching) tale of childhood, poverty and the broken American dream.
This is Kissimmee, Fla., and it is less than 10 miles away from that fairy tale promise of Disney. It might as well be on another planet.
Not that Moonee notices. Played by the wonderfully great newcomer Brooklynn Prince, Moonee lives in a world of her own, a charmed childhood dreamscape of freedom and friends and devilish fun and colorful buildings shaped like oranges and soft serve cones.
Moonee is not an angel — quite the opposite. She is not well-behaved or polite or deferential to adults. And she does some truly bad things, but you can’t help but fall in love with her.
Young childhood is so hard to get right in the movies. Children in films are pawns that never feel true — either too poetic or perceptive or cute to be believed. But Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch get it so very right with Moonee and her friends. It feels like you’re watching a documentary at times.
As far as Moonee is concerned, things are good at the Magic Castle. She doesn’t know that she lives on the brink of poverty, or that her mother, played by another terrific newcomer in Bria Vinaite, might not be looking out for her best interests all the time. All she knows is she can run to the back alley of a diner to get free pancakes from her friend’s mom and talk strangers into giving her money for free ice cream whenever. She knows that her mom is fun and loves her, and she feels safe.
It helps that the kind and empathetic motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) picks up the supervision slack and keeps an eye on Moonee and her friends.
Dafoe’s warm and generous performance is simply astonishing. It’s not one you’ll soon forget, although it might make you forget some of the creeps he’s played.
Baker has outdone himself with the all-out triumph that is “The Florida Project,” which will have your emotions running the gamut and you running back to the ticket counter for one more viewing. It’s that good.
It also might make you think about those who live near the poverty line, the children they have and the lives they lead and the consequences and ever-present fear of one missed payment. Being poor is neither as dour nor as romantic as the movies generally might have you believe.
Thank goodness, then, for “The Florida Project,” a candy-colored fairy tale on the wrong side of the tracks that knows that even though the Disney fences are high and the prices steep, the nightly fireworks show is for anyone who takes a moment to look up at the sky.
(At Rio and Town Center)
‘The Florida Project’
Rated R for language, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material.