The Florida Project, a fractured fairy tale by Tangerine writer-director Sean Baker, takes its title from the early name of Walt Disney's Orlando theme park, but it isn't about royalty residing in a grand castle or the bourgeoisie immediately surrounding it. Instead, it investigates the margins of the Magic Kingdom—the people who live beyond its gilded gates.
Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her mom, Halley (an outstanding Bria Vinaite), live in The Magic Castle Inn, one of those extended-stay fleabag motels on the outskirts of Orlando with Disney-derivative themes. Halley lost her job dancing at a men's club, so Moonee accompanies her as she peddles knockoff perfumes and stolen merchandise to tourists and country club members. Halley is obnoxious, and a pretty rotten mom to boot. But her demeanor masks an insecure upbringing that has left her ill-equipped for life's responsibilities.
Otherwise, the rambunctious Moonee and her pint-size pals mill around the motel making mischief. They spit on cars, vandalize, bum money, and venture off-premises to kitschy gift shops adorned with giant mermaids or overgrown byways with names like Seven Dwarfs Lane. They play house in the abandoned ruins of pastel-colored condos, monuments to corrosive consumer capitalism. The Magic Castle is essentially a tenement house, and its occupants form a support system that breeds its share of feuds. Halley's BFF, Ashley, goes from sneaking food to Moonee from the back door of the diner where Ashley works to cutting off contact when she disapproves of Halley's coarse manner and illicit moneymaking.
Overseeing this hive is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the Magic Castle's dedicated, exasperated manager. His workday ranges from chasing rent to touching up the eyesore's purple facade, enforcing the pool's ban on topless sunbathing, and wrangling bedbugs and broken ice machines. In one delightfully improvised scene, he shoos emus from the inn's entranceway. He also looks after the rascals in his unofficial charge, chasing away the occasional child predator. Against the tide of societal and economic forces, Bobby tries to corral the chaos and make this communal space as respectable and respectful as possible. It's among the most relatable, at-ease performances of Dafoe's career.
Baker thrives on lives at the periphery. Wherever there's aristocratic excess, there are have-nots, and The Florida Project is both joyous and melancholy in its portrayal of their plight in a land sucked dry. The frequent sound of a sightseeing chopper near the motel is a reminder, for those on the ground, of stark inequality. There's both beauty and bleakness when Baker bathes the Magic Castle in a lavender sunset and the residents gaze out at the nightly Disney fireworks display, exploding in the distance like some unattainable dream of the happiest place on Earth.