With the innocence and energy of youth, six-year-olds Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) spend their sunshine-filled days running around their Florida neighbourhood. It's a jubilant time for the cheeky, cheerful, unsupervised trio who aren't old enough to have any worries, full of ice cream, pool dips and trips through abandoned houses. Disney World looms nearby, its fireworks often blossoming above, while the industry surrounding the theme park — oversized fast food joints, discount outlets and souvenir-shops — is all part of their playground. And although the mischievous kids don't attend school even when classes are in session, they know how to make the most of their summer.
So it is, with affection, exuberance and the sounds of Kool & the Gang's 'Celebration', that writer-director Sean Baker (Tangerine) tells their story. The acclaimed filmmaker focuses in on Moonee and her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), with much of the movie favouring the rebellious girl's perspective. Lush widescreen visuals captured in 35mm abound, alongside personality-filled close-ups that capture a sense of youthful adventure. Crucially, however, Baker doesn't shy away from the darker side of his protagonist's lives. While vibrant, The Florida Project casts its unblinkered view over spitting at cars, selling knock-off perfumes, begging for extensions on the rent, fighting with the authorities, trifling with crime and doing whatever it takes to make ends meet. That's everyday existence in The Magic Castle, the purple-hued week-by-week hotel that's home to Orlando's poor and battling. Suffice it to say, it's a far cry from Disney's Magic Kingdom.
That gap — that chasm — between the haves and the have-nots is impossible to miss. But Baker isn't interested in delivering a lecture or serving up a colourful piece of poverty porn. In much the same way he did with the iPhone-shot Tangerine, which followed a pair of trans sex workers in Los Angeles, the director's latest effort both depicts and embraces a group of people and a way of life rarely seen elsewhere, all without judging or sugar-coating. It's a film that understands that Moonee's antics are magical to her because she's never known anything else. Indeed, if every filmmaker looked at the world in the same way as Baker, we'd be living in a much kinder and more empathetic place.
He also receives considerable assistance from his largely inexperienced and non-professional cast, with the movie's devotion to detail seeing Prince kick-start her career with the kind of complex performance actors five times her age or more aren't often able to muster. Vinaite, meanwhile, makes her debut after Baker found her via Instagram, proving lively, spirited and soulful as a mother who treats her kid more as a friend and co-conspirator than a daughter. Finally, there's Willem Dafoe. One of just a handful of recognisable faces in the picture, and on course to win a thoroughly-deserved Oscar for his efforts, Dafoe doesn't steal the show from Prince and Vinaite, but supports them with grace and sensitivity. As the Magic Castle's exhausted but understanding manager Bobby, the veteran actor delivers a perfect supporting turn — making everyone around him shine brighter but never jumping into their spotlight.
Made with clear eyes, an open heart and a willingness to show both the highs and lows of life on Florida's margins, Baker's latest isn't the kind of film that makes it to cinemas every day. It's an honest, accessible, compassionate account of low-rent troubles and tussles – a tale that's tender, tragic and joyous with a knockout ending that's both devastating and beautiful.