On the outskirts of Florida’s Disney World lies the dark underbelly of capitalism in which single parents and unemployed individuals struggle to provide for their loved ones while making a ‘home’ for themselves in the imperfect purple walls of a cheap, castle-themed motel. Living in the looming shadow of “The Happiest Place on Earth” is the concerning yet hilariously unapologetic six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her desperate and volatile mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in Sean Baker’s independent feature film, The Florida Project. Moonee roams the pink-tinged streets and grassy fields with best friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) in search of ice cream and adventure, while conveying the hardships of low-income families through the perspective of wonder-seeking children. As Halley fights to make ends meet through whatever means necessary the film’s subtle details begin to assemble to form an exceptionally brilliant piece about the devastation and magnificence of humanity that will stay with you long after the credits roll out.

Baker’s filmography features a series of films that shine a light on the cobwebbed corners of American society, ignored or unnoticed by the larger population—such as a transgender sex worker in Hollywood (Tangerine, 2015), a stripper befriending an elderly woman after taking her money, (Starlet, 2012), and a man that sells knock-offs until he is forced to raise a son he didn’t know he had (Prince of Brooklyn, 2008). Throughout The Florida Project Baker gives affectionate winks to Our Gang (1922), a series of comedic short-films about the adventures of children during the Depression, and the film The Little Rascals (1994) based on the 1922 series. His overt love-affair with Our Gang is undisguised in the film, as the series’ concept of children creating an exciting paradise for themselves against a backdrop of desperation is not only prominent in The Florida Project, it is the most alluring and heartwarming aspect of the film.The Florida Project doesn’t confine itself to following a straight plot, instead it trails the day-to-day lives of the overlooked through the eyes of the children who emanate an innocent determination to find awe in everything—even while they’re more aware of their situation than any adults realise. It is a true ‘slice-of-life’ film, that places more significance on the reactions of the characters to certain events and situations than the progression of the events themselves. This is where the strong cast of The Florida Project step in to do a remarkable job at providing a truly compelling performance—a performance that would have diminished the film’s impact if a single actor had fallen flat.

Thus, I cannot praise the acting highly enough. For a cast that was predominantly newly discovered talent, with Vinaite giving a stunningly raw performance as Halley despite having no previous acting experience, the cast powered The Florida Project with humour and conviction. Prince shone amongst her talented co-stars as she brought the loveable character of Moonie to life in such a naturalistic way that I never doubted the character or the events that were unfolding. Paired with Vinaite, and a wonderful script, the two made a powerful duo and conveyed the thrill of child-like innocence and the repeatedly disheartening nature of maturity that resonates with all adults.

The only recognisable actor in the film was Willem Dafoe, providing one of his best and final performances as the character Bobby, the manager of the slightly run-down motel—The Magic Castle—that all the characters are housed in. Despite constantly being irritated by the children, with their competitions to harass tourists, paired with Halley’s inconsistent ability to care for herself and Moonee, Bobby cannot detach himself from the lives of those he houses. Dafoe masterfully portrays Bobby as an exasperated guardian angel, watching out for the children despite his desire to stay as far away as possible. He shoos away a potential pedophile eyeing up the children with sickened composure, he attempts to help Halley with accommodation despite her barrage of insults and he is there for Moonee when everything begins to rapidly collapse around her.Once the dust settles and Moonee finds herself standing on the precipice of ‘what happens next’ the film quickly launches into a rather weird and sloppy ending—one of the only areas I can truly fault the film. Clearly shot on someone’s phone, the final moment is incredibly jarring when placed alongside the film’s previously calm, nicely composed shots and beautiful use of both subtle and bold colours. Although the ending was filmed dreadfully—as it was recorded in secret by a running camera man—I understood the intended purpose, and as far as dreadful endings go this one really wasn’t all that bad, certainly not bad enough to skip this film.

The Florida Project is a beautiful film about the joys of childhood amongst the struggles of those striving to get by, with some of the best performances and child acting I have ever seen. An absolute must-see for those wanting a more truthful insight into the lives of those without steady incomes, poetically juxtaposed with the consumerist bustle of Disney World, and for viewers seeking compelling performances and characters that will surprise you.

The Florida Project is in cinemas now.