What’s wrong with a little Disney fantasy if it lets a 6-year-old girl for a moment escape her ironically named slum motel, The Magic Castle? That’s the question answered in the last minute of Sean Baker’s magical The Florida Project, a film included in Art Dubai’s year-round film programming in partnership with Front Row Filmed Entertainment and screened at Roxy Cinemas at Dubai's City Walk.
It’s the story of Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), 6 years old. She lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in a squalid room at The Magic Castle. Motels like this line the short distance from their place to Disney World. Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe) runs the place.
Baker nails the set up. At first you think it’s a story of childhood, of spontaneity and fun: of ignoring the bleakness of life around her. Moonee is precociously sharp. She’s a street kid who adores her mother and her friends and anyone else who treats her nice. In an interview with Variety, Baker says he based the story on The Little Rascals, comedy shorts from the 20s and 30s. He reminds us that, as funny as the kids were, they lived poor lives.
That’s how we see Moonee’s life, an impoverished though pastel-colored playground. Each day blends into the other. Halley manages to get by. Moonee retrieves food from a neighbor who works in a diner. Halley, with Moonee’s help, sells perfume to tourists. Somehow, they make their weekly rent. This goes on for most of the film: focusing on details, Halley scrambles to provide. Focusing on the big picture, Moonee scrambles to have fun.
The big picture encroaches much too soon on Moonee. She and her friends set an abandoned place on fire. Bobby chases off a perv who approached the kids as they played outside. Halley can’t make rent and tries to borrow it from her diner friend. When the diner friend won’t help, Halley beats the crap out of her. When Child Services appear, we learn how Halley made her money. We don’t see that coming.
Prince’s Moonee and Vinaite’s Halley are gems. Just like Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, Prince makes her character gritty and insightful beyond her years. Her ability to sidestep the world at large is formidable. We relish the chance to share her adventure-filled, consequence-less world. I still can’t get over her reaction to her mother being taken to jail. Wow. When we imagine her life in 10 years, we don’t have to look far. Wistful like a Dust Bowl Goldie Hawn, Vinaite’s Halley shows us what’s in store for her daughter, barring a miracle. Dafoe’s quiet, conflicted Bobby doesn’t just ace the been-there, done-that character of a roach motel manager, he’s got a face that Dorothea Lange would have loved.
We can praise the story for its documentary-style footage, for its Little Rascals brand of humor. Really, though, it’s a compelling, brilliantly-enacted story of how Disney’s Magic Castle is more real than pretend, just as The Magic Castle is more nightmare than real. The fantasy that is Disney serves as a balm so kids – and everyone else – can deal with what’s outside the park’s gates, namely – life.
You can watch the trailer here.