Dir: Sean Baker. Cast: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto, Willem Dafoe
1hr 51 mins, USA, 2017
It’s not often you see a film that affirms and celebrates a tender, loving relationship between a mother and small daughter; Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite are brilliant as, respectively, six-year-old Moonee and her pink-and-green haired young mum Halley, living together in a cheap motel, purple-painted The Magic Castle, outside the walls of Disneyworld in Florida.
Through this precarious world of cheap housing, abandoned building lots, lousy jobs and hustling of one kind or another, Moonee and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) run and play and make mischief, creating their own rich, imaginative, laughter-filled world. They invite Jancey (Valeria Cotto) to join them in a gang-of-three. ‘Can she come and play?’ Moonee asks Jancey’s mother. ‘Play what?’ ‘Just play,’ answers Moonee.
While Disney sells its dreamworld to the paying public, Moonee creates her own fantasy world, and shares it. There’s a brilliant scene when she takes Jancey on ‘safari’, out through the long grass of the edgelands of Orlando … and with a ta-da! shows her a herd of grazing cows.
Director Sean Baker keeps the camera at eye-level, or looking up from below at the children as they race along the motel balconies or rattle down the staircase. ‘I wanted them to be big – kings and queens of their domain,’ he said.
Willem Dafoe is excellent as the kind-hearted but unsentimental motel manager, a man who has his own living to protect but has the generosity to want to protect others too. The actor who plays Scooty’s mum (I couldn’t find her name in the IMDB cast-list) is also excellent.
For all the hilarity and the life-affirming energy and creativity of 6-year-old Moonee and her friends, the children’s lives are overshadowed by the harsh economic realities of the adult world. An accidental fire in an abandoned block of houses marks a turning-point in the film’s narrative; it leads to a number of consequences, none of them good. The final scene, set inside Disneyworld in all its weirdness, seemed to me to be a bit like a reprise of the ending of Thelma and Louise, but with two small girls rather than grown women (no car nor shoot-out nor death – but that same desperation, same sadness). So, a fierce take on the cruel inequities of the American dream, but simultaneously a joyful celebration of childhood, and of love.
Ismay loved this as much as I did. Muffet liked it but found it more painful than joyful.
Ismay: Innocent, beautiful but full of sadness.