This remarkable film gently and profoundly shows the fragility of US life on the poverty line from the point of view of the children and families who live on the margins. As realistic as a documentary, it is set within the fractured community of motels in Florida, on the doorstep of Disney World.
Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the caretaker of a lilac painted budget motel in Orlando, the Magic Castle. It’s not the kind of motel tourists frequent except by mistake, confusing it with Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. It, like other motels in the vicinity, becomes a de facto home for those on the poverty line like Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Forcing the residents to move out for a night sporadically so that they can’t be seen as permanent tenants, Bobby treads a fine line between helping them and maintaining standards.
Unable to hold down a job, Halley scams and begs, relying on charity, charm, luck and her body as a commodity. For six-year-old Moonee and friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) it’s a life of delicious freedom; spitting on cars, setting fire to things and evading the exasperated scrutiny of Bobby. It harks back to childhoods of 40 years ago or more where kids spent their time outside and parental supervision or interest was minimal. Moonee, though, is oblivious to how precarious the world she lives in is and we watch with foreboding as Halley’s defiance and desperation increasingly works against her.
The performances from the children are outstanding. You feel that the director, Sean Baker (Tangerine), films from a distance, allowing the children to play and develop genuine interactions and friendships. Vinaite is a standout, making Halley never completely likeable but showing the morality within her maternity and the tenacity that makes us want her to succeed.
The ending is a controversial one. Abruptly the camera changes to a low-res digital handheld one as we follow Moonee and Jancey as they run. Although jarring, it underlines the subtext of the film; the juxtaposition of the exaggerated fairytale magic of Disney World and the corporate capitalism it represents with the reality around it, exposing its brittle facade.
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