Starring Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, and Brooklynn Prince
My friend Andrew transferred from Monmouth to Miami University because he wanted a change of scene, and he got it. Any time I receive photos from Andrew, I expect to see golden beaches, crystal clear waters, enormous palm trees, or a blazing sunset. When someone mentions Florida, these images come to mind.
On the other hand, when one mentions Florida to Director Sean Baker, he thinks of the busy roads packed with shopping malls, the abandoned waterfront properties, backcountry filled with cows, and of course, the purple Magic Castle Motel.
The Magic Castle Motel is located right down the street from Walt Disney World, the place where dreams come true. It is home to a rebellious young adult mother Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, who struggles to make each week’s “rent.”
Her around 5 year old daughter, Moonee, played by Brooklynn Price, is basking in the glory of summer, going off on daily excursions with her playmates.
As the ringleader of her small group of friends, she drives them to spit on people’s windshields, ask customers for money to buy ice cream, and shut down the motel’s power.
Ya know, kid stuff.
While Moonee is out playing with her friends, Bobby the motel manager, played by Willem Dafoe, has a residency to run.
With the ice and laundry machines on their last legs, Gloria tanning shirtless by the pool, and fights breaking out in the parking lot, Bobby has his work cut out for him.
What elevates the authenticity to their lives are the excellent performances, well written script by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, and gorgeous cinematography by Alexis Zabe.
Willem Dafoe shines in one of the best roles of his career as Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle Motel.
Bobby feels like a father figure to all the residents young and old. The actor can crack the whip towards residents, like when he kicks Moonee and her friend out of the lobby for dropping some ice cream on the floor, or arguing with Halley as to how she makes a living. Additionally, Bobby shows an affectionate side towards others, as he keeps up on what’s happening in their lives.
There is also a defensive side to his character, when people outside of the motel come to stir up trouble with the residents. For example, as the children are playing on the front lawn of the motel, a creepy old man shows up to the scene.
Once Dafoe’s character detects this threat, he approaches the old man and pulls him aside. After a calm long talk, Bobby flips the switch and chases the old man off the premises.
The way Dafoe handles each situation as Bobby feels natural and shows how versatile he can be.
While Dafoe gives a career-best performance, child actress Brooklynn Prince gives a breakthrough performance as Moonee.
Moonee paints the honest portrait of adolescence by displaying great confidence and determination. Moonee is the young girl who will let nothing get in her way, even if it is being five cents short on a vanilla custard.
Through her confidence, she brings out the best in each character by pushing their boundaries.
There is a moment where she becomes friends with Jancey, who is attached to her mother at the Futureland Motel. With her undeniable charm, Moonee convinces Jancey to come play with her friend Scooty, which winds up being a far walk along the busy road to an ice cream stand.
Another quality of Moonee is the difference in language she has with kids her age compared to adults. Considering the way her mother acts towards others, she chooses to address adults bluntly, even with foul language.
However, when Moonee talks to children, she is much more relatable and understanding. The script for Prince’s character and other youngsters displays children through a humanistic lens.
Although the Magic Castle Motel is down the street from Disney World, the cinematography can make this feel like a special place.
The settings are beautifully captured through some wide shots, as the rascals walk past Orlando’s quirky roadside shops like a wizard-themed gift shop and the dome-shaped Orange World.
Then there are some low angle shots that isolate the character as they walk in and out of the frame, while the sun setting sky may serve as the backdrop. Despite these superb choices in cinematography, there is a particular scene that embodies everything about this film.
There is a moment where Bobby is leaning over the balcony on the third floor, preparing to light a cigarette at sunset.
When Bobby flicks on his lighter, the camera slowly approaches him as the balcony lights begin to shine. This shot captures the control
Dafoe’s character has over the motel not only as a manager, but parental figure too.
It is also one of the few quiet moments where we can take a breath and appreciate the beautiful roadside view from the balcony.
The honest look into the residents of the Magic Castle Motel is magical.
Sean Baker’s directorial style of shining a light on everyday struggles through the eyes of children and adults in this location feels unique. The residents face a lot of challenges as they are oddly surrounded by the head turning, purple behemoth that is the Magic Castle Motel. Additionally, the actors who play the residents tremendously purvey a sense of authenticity, while making an instant connection with the audience. Although the motel could use some work, The Florida Project is in no need of touchups.
Go ahead, keep Disney World. The real world is right up the street.