Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. USA, 2017. Cre Film, Freestyle Picture Company, June Pictures, Sweet Tomato Films. Screenplay by Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch. Cinematography by Alexis Zabe. Produced by Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou. Music by Lorne Balfe. Production Design by Stephonik Youth. Costume Design by Fernando Rodriguez. Film Editing by Sean Baker. Academy Awards 2017. Golden Globe Awards 2017. Toronto International Film Festival 2017.
Not far from the happiest place on earth, a series of brightly painted motels service the tourists visiting Disney World on a tighter budget, a great deal of them also inhabited by more permanent dwellers who pay their weekly rent and raise children in tight quarters. It’s summer break and little Moonee and her buddy Scooty have little else to do in the blazing sunshine than wander from their “Magic Castle” to the motel next door and back in an energetic frenzy, sassing their elders or begging outside ice cream kiosks, while her mom struggles to get by hustling perfume on the streets and his mom works as a diner waitress who gives her friend the odd free meal. As Moonee’s childish pranks get more serious and her mom’s situation gets more dire, motel manager Willem Dafoe‘s instinct to protect his inhabitants becomes that much more acute, the daily struggle of these characters’ lives constantly at odds with the vibrant colours that surround them. It sounds like the kind of grimy indulgence in misery that is often the result of filmmakers disguising their exploitation of the lower classes as pompous finger-wagging at the ignorant bourgeois, but the magnificence of Sean Baker’s film is in how funny and spontaneous it is. The whole thing is an exercise in unapologetic expression, from the children whose complete lack of respect is also hilariously disarming, to the moments of poetic beauty that the gorgeous cinematography provides despite how honest the film is about some very desperate lives. Dafoe shines as the man who brings a strong arm and clear mind to his work but can never fully leave his heart at home, while Brooklynn Prince is a marvel of child acting genius as the precocious little heroine.