Starring Willem Dafoe. Rated 14A
Fifty years later, central Florida—and by extension the US of A—is not exactly the Happiest Place on Earth. The black-and-white iconography of Mickey Mouse still stands beside red-white-and-blue flags on strip-mall highways, but everything looks bleached and hollow in the Orlando sun. Everything, that is, except the Magic Castle, a fourth-rate motel painted such a garish purple, only the most desperate people can tolerate staying there.
On the ground floor is single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), whose tats are bigger than small daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). It’s July 4th weekend, and Moonee spends her free-range days with other kindergarten-aged kids, including Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who lives upstairs with his single mom. (Can someone really be named Mela Murder?) The latter hangs out with Halley and cadges free food for everybody at the waffle house where she works.
Halley has a bad attitude instead of a job or a personality, but she’s hardly more grown-up than those kids. And her profanity-laden rants mask sadness that must come from lifelong abuse. When not smoking and watching trash TV, she’s doing shady stuff to make ends meet. Fortunately for her, the motel, and the movie, there is an Uncle Walt on the scene: an impossibly patient manager called Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe, in his most kindhearted role. Bobby himself has likely fallen out of the middle-class Magic Kingdom, judging from the inexplicably quick visits by his resentful grown son (Get Out’s Caleb Landry Jones).
Dafoe and Jones are virtually the only professional actors in a truly magnificent effort from director Sean Baker and cowriter Chris Bergoch. Their last was the rightly lauded Tangerine, shot entirely on iPhones. The focus here is still on marginalized people, but Baker and Bergoch have graduated to 35mm film, which perfectly suits the empty-candy-wrapper aesthetics of the place, and also recalls the dreamlike weirdness of Beasts of the Southern Wild—minus soundtrack music, except for one of the most riveting finishes you’ll encounter this or any other year.
The movie’s end, like its start, focuses on its little Prince, and she’s a real find. It’s impossible to know how much of this girl’s ecstatic performance was directed and how much she invented on the spot. Kingdoms come and go, but sometimes you can tell from a child’s face that she’ll wind up a kind of princess, whatever else happens.