The idea of childhood wonder was invented, after the fact and in their typical, boring way, by adults. Kids have no idea they’re feeling wonder—just feeling it is the thing. That’s the lightning in a bottle captured by director Sean Baker in The Florida Project. Six-year-old Moonee (the preternaturally joyous Brooklynn Prince) is an ebullient kid living with her chronically unemployed mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a purple budget motel on the fringes of Orlando. It’s called the Magic Castle, a non-copyright-infringing riff on Disney World’s nearby Magic Kingdom, though it may as well be a continent away.
Moonee has no idea about that, and she lives her days as childhood days are meant to be lived, scampering around the sunny asphalt neighborhood with her best friends Scooty and Jancey (Christopher Rivera and Valeria Cotto), sassing the grownups and cadging free ice cream at the local soft-serve joint. Halley, a tough-talking sylph with a robust scattering of tattoos and cellophane-blue hair, is practically a kid herself. She covers Moonee with sunbeams of love, even while she can barely take care of her. To get by, Halley sells cheap perfume, bought wholesale, to rich tourists, and when that doesn’t work, she turns to selling something else.
The Magic Castle’s long-suffering manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe in a sturdy, understated performance), feigns exasperation with this scrappy yet fragile family, but he guards them too. Baker makes us feel the same protectiveness: you’re likely to watch The Florida Project anxiously, waiting for the inevitable terrible thing to happen. But trust Baker (director of the glorious 2015 working-girl comedy Tangerine).
Director Sean Baker encouraged his cast to improvise, using Hal Roach’s “Our Gang”shorts as an example of what he wanted. He’s too openhearted a filmmaker to punish us with unleavened realism. The Florida Project is both radiant and unsentimental. When Moonee takes Jancey on a day-trip adventure, the afternoon is almost spoiled by rain—but then the sun comes out as they stand before a field of placid, mooing cows. “See?” Moonee tells her friend. “I took you on a safari.” This magic kingdom of her making becomes ours too.