In writer/director Sean Baker's latest film, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) runs riot at the Magic Castle, a garish lavender monstrosity subsisting in the shadow of Disney World. The place is kept from total squalor through the grudging but persistent labors of manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). A few tourists, who call it "a welfare slum motel," check in by mistake, but there's really just one reason anyone, including Bobby, ends up there—they have nowhere else to go.
The last time a kid had the run of a hotel in a movie was in Stanley Kubrick's “The Shining,” and he was terrorized by visions both real and paranormal. In Baker's script, which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch, Moonee and her gang, made up of a sensitive kid called Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), the new girl from a neighboring motel, are the terrors. This ragtag crew plays at a lot of the usual kid stuff: hide-and-seek, cartoons. But they also trespass in foreclosed houses and start fires.
Moonee’s mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is supposed to be watching over the kids while Scooty's mom waitresses at a nearby diner (she sneaks waffles out the back door for their lunch). Halley's not absent but she's not engaged either. Viewers quickly learn she's the source of Moonee's brazenness as well as her mature vocabulary. Anytime either of them feels threatened, they unleash a stream of angry vulgarity, sometimes warranted but never helpful to their cause. Still, you can't help but root for them.
It's a testament to his acting skills that to see Dafoe appear on screen means not knowing right away whether he'll be playing savior or menace. But with this project, Baker and Bergoch have handed the veteran actor the role of a lifetime. Much like any sympathetic member of the audience, Bobby is allowed to remain conflicted.
Baker shot the entirety of his previous feature film Tangerine using only iPhone cameras. Far from a gimmick, the photography created a sense of intimacy and an insider's familiarity with place as the camera closely followed the two transgender friends as they hustled— figuratively and literally—around L.A.
The action in Florida takes place in a more confined area; Halley and Moonee never venture farther away from the motel, located near Seven Dwarfs Lane (the street sign is one of the few actual references to their proximity to the Magic Kingdom) than they can walk. Cinematographer Alexis Zabé shoots the local off-brand landmarks in colorful widescreen, as if to not just reveal the tackiness of the strip mall but to elevate it.
The fruit market in the shape of an orange, a gift shop lorded over by a giant wizard and the cone-shaped soft-serve ice cream stand, where Moonee and friends beg for money for ice cream and when they can't get that they beg for the ice cream, exemplify the once delightfully novel now discarded. It's revealing the hidden realm of the déclassé, and Moonee is its queen.