Greetings again from the darkness. “The Happiest Place on Earth” has long been a Disney catchphrase. The irony for those living on the road to Disney World is the focus of the latest from ground-breaking filmmaker Sean Baker. Mr. Baker was the creative force behind the remarkable TANGERINE (shot entirely with iphones) a couple of years ago, and his most recent film solidifies his brilliance at bringing us the fringes of society – those we don’t typically see on screen. Beyond that, these are the folks many of us pay little attention to in real life.
The Magic Castle Motel is a lavender monstrosity that belies the daily struggles of those who live behind its purple doors. It’s actually a seedy extended-stay that caters to ultra-budget guests. Included among those are 6 year old Moonee (Brooklyn Kimberly Prince) and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera). As we watch them spit on a car below their perch on the motel balcony, we quickly judge these as kids with a bit too much free time and a shortage of parental guidance.
As the summer days roll on, we tag along as Moonee leads Scooty and their new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) in some boundary-pushing adventures. Their fun ranges from typical kid mischief to accidents with more serious ramifications. The brilliance here is that through the child’s eye, we see joy and excitement and fun. We hear the purity of giggles and giddy screeches as the kids bound between tourist traps, ice cream parlors, and rooms forbidden as off-limits. All of this miscreant activity occurs amidst the adults who trudge on simply trying to survive another day.
While we might be tempted to recall Cat Stevens’ lyrics, “while the sinners sin, the children play”, it’s director Baker that refuses to pass judgment. Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) was recently fired from her “dancing” job, and is now constantly on the prowl to make enough money to cover the weekly motel bill. She clearly loves her daughter, but is too proud and angry, and just has no idea of how to pull out of this vicious cycle of poverty. The artificial dreams that are prevalent in so many films have no place at the Magic Castle Motel. It’s about the next meal and keeping a roof above.
Don’t go searching for plot here. Instead, at times it feels like a documentary on Moonee or the spirited need for fun and laughter that is in the DNA of kids. We are just following a real kid around, and that’s a tribute to the marvel that is Brooklyn Kimberly Prince. She steals every scene and most of the movie … and that’s in spite of the terrific performances from Ms. Vinaite and screen vet Willem Dafoe. It’s a rare “normal” role for Mr. Dafoe, and he makes the most of it as Bobby, the motel’s manager. He is also a father figure, mediator of disputes, bill collector, and protector of damaged souls. With no hint of saccharine or Hollywood mush, Bobby is unable to detach emotionally from those who live at the hotel, not because he is soft, but rather because he is human. We see his demeanor change drastically when the owner of the hotel arrives for inspection. Bobby understands the fragility of his own situation due to what he witnesses each day.
Director Baker is a master of color use and the blending of abrupt framed images with the handhelds in close proximity within motel rooms and personal interactions. His story (co-written with his TANGERINE and STARLET collaborator Chris Bergoch) never feels condescending, preachy or romanticized. There is no blatant political statement being made. These are folks living their lives as best they are able within the confines of their situation. The police and Child Protective Services are always hovering as a reminder that the next mistake could significantly alter lives. Somehow, the film is both hilarious and heart-breaking. The obvious comparison is to last year’s MOONLIGHT, and it could even be viewed as a prequel to AMERICAN HONEY. Mostly it’s a slice of rarely seen life and further proof that Sean Baker is already an important filmmaker, and one that likely has more to say. As for the debate around the final scene, does it really matter? There is no better place for a child to escape reality … even if it might only be in their mind. Sometimes that’s the only escape we get.