Willem Dafoe should be on top of Oscar's Best Supporting Actor list for his stellar work in The Florida Project, a film that's as hilarious and heartbreaking as it is unclassifiable. The actor's soul-deep performance as Bobby, a motel manager working the low-rent fringes of Orlando's theme-park "paradise," is alert to every nuance, and his achievement is even more notable considering the scene-stealing kid actors he's surrounded by. Director/co-writer Sean Baker's follow-up to his movie breakthrough Tangerine – which showed that miracles can happen filming on a nothing budget with only smartphone cameras – was shot on widescreen 35mm by cinematographer Alexis Zabe, and bursts with color and light. But the filmmaker digs into the darker subtext of this candy-colored cosmos, cutting to the core of what's at stake when children are set adrift in a shining world of false promises.
Bobby's tacky place of business, ironically named the Magic Castle, is a purple-colored eyesore built in the hope of getting spillover customers who can't afford Disney World. Instead, it looks like the land that Mickey Mouse forgot, a refuge for the near homeless. Bria Vinaite excels as Halley, a tattooed single mom of 22 trying to scrape by for the sake of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old with a mouth on her. Halley quit her job as a stripper when customers started expecting closer contact; Bobby gives her a sympathetic ear, but can't keep the landlord at bay. It may seem like a cliché that the desperate young woman drifts into prostitution, but it's also a cold, hard fact of life.
The Florida Project (the name for Disney World in its planning stages) sounds like a downer, and sometimes it is – but not when the kids are around. Prince is a youthful force of nature as Moonee, and her friend Jancee (Valeria Cotto), who lives with her grandmother across the way at the Futureland Inn, is her equal in mischief. The girls are hardly aware they exist on the poverty line; they're always up for a prank, a spitting contest or a new way to scam strangers for an ice cream. Two boys, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik), enter their inner circle. It's tough on the girls when Dicky moves and Scooty's mom Ashley (Mela Murder) – who gives the girls free waffles from Orange World where she works as a waitress – decides the girl is a bad influence. She's also quick to pick up on the fact the Halley has started turning ricks in her room, ending a friendship that devastates our unraveling heroine.
It's a moral quagmire that Moonee senses but can't articulate. Bobby steps in when he can, but surrogate parenting is not part of his job description. Dafoe's portrayal, laced with grit and grace, is never more haunting than when his character's compassion reaches its limits. Of course, the sorrow of this film plays most poignantly across a youngster's uncomprehending face. Prince is a genuine find, a natural camera presence of unfaked emotion. Baker ends The Florida Project – one of the best and most provocative films ever made about childhood – with an unscheduled raid on the actual Disney World, with its intimations of a great big beautiful tomorrow clashing with Moonee's harsh reality. The jump in moods can be jarring. But Baker, blending The Little Rascals with his own brand of indie neo-realism, cuts a direct path to the heart.