At the core of the film is the clash between the fantasy of childhood and the harsh realities of life. Exemplifying this is the setting. There’s an entire industry of knockoff Disney properties surrounding Disneyworld, and the residents of the hotel The Magic Castle are at the center of The Florida Project. There are tourists and then there are those who must work in the tourism area to scrape by a meager living. In The Magic Castle, these divides collide into a marvelous portrait of childlike wonder and adult cruelty.
In Sean Baker’s latest, he excellently captures the divide between this fantasy and harsh reality in some beautiful and wondrous photography with cinematographer Alexis Zabe. They harness natural lighting astoundingly, just amping up the color saturation subtly to enhance this feeling of the magical at home in the rundown. Even the clouds in certain shots seem painted on, like they’re a part of Disneyworld. Zabe’s camera floats around our characters, making us feel as if we’re right there with them through joy and heartbreak.
Sean Baker has a special quality about him in how he can make you feel like you’re living in the film with people instead of characters. There isn’t so much a plot as much as a firm sense of setting and character. This wouldn’t succeed without his excellent cast. The kids are absolute grand slams, especially our lead Brooklynn Prince as Moonee. They all just feel like children, and remind us of what it was like to live each moment with such wonder and zeal. There’s a scene where Moonee cries, and it’s some of the most authentic crying I’ve seen. These kids don’t have to work to sell you on their emotions, they just live them so authentically. Brooklynn Prince commands unbelievable range for her age, and I hope we continue to see her grow as a performer.
We get a side of Willem Dafoe we rarely get here – warmth and empathy. We’re so used to seeing him play sleazeballs and villains, we forget just how much humanity is in him. Here he’s Bobby, the hotel manager, and you can see this constant struggle between empathy for the hardships his tenants face, his kindness and love towards the kids, and the harsh realities of his job and all the shit he has to put up with. It’s a terrific effort from Dafoe, you just believe he is Bobby. We also get welcome, understated and brief appearances from talents like Caleb Landry Jones and Macon Blair. Sean Baker will work in non-actors around his cast to winning results, enhancing the authenticity of the world these kids inhabit.
The final sequence is absolutely magical. We break from reality straight to magical realism and fantasy. I can’t say much past that, but it’s incredibly effective. The film just couldn’t have ended any other way. It reveals its central themes to you in the simplest manner. Each of the adults in the film are trying their best to protect the innocence of the children, but each of them fail in their own ways to varying degrees. Here comes the message of the work – you can’t protect the children from the world, only the children can protect the children.