Moonee lives with her mother—the marvelously mouthy, middle-finger-wielding Halley. They live in a resplendently lilac-colored Orlando motel called “The Magic Castle”—a name desperately conveying this second-rate getaway’s proximity to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.  

Together they make up what seems like the mother-daughter duo from hell in “The Florida Project,” the latest release, from director Sean Baker. Since the start of his young career, Baker has gained a reputation for shooting his films, namely 2015’s playful yet gripping tale of a transgender sex worker, “Tangerine,” entirely on iPhones. This time, Baker pockets the iPhone—at least for most of the film. And in its place, he favors a human-eyed camera, whizzing by kids marching valiantly down motel balconies, zooming right onto the dilated pupils of ice cream-eating 6-year-olds with unbrushed realism. The sort of realism where every probable protagonist is a villain, and every probable villain shows signs of human decency.

In Baker’s reality, everyone is beautiful and everyone is terrible. We’re never given enough leeway to decide even on our own, and that’s okay.

As viewers, we mostly stay within Moonee’s universe, where Mickey ear-embossed emporiums glisten beneath a periwinkle-streaked Orlando sun; advertising discounted Disney merchandise; street signs bear names like “Seven Dwarfs Lane;” and la-di-da newlyweds erupt in horror when a blameful groom realizes his assistant made a “terrible mistake” by booking the purple-not-so-much-palace Magic Castle for his honeymoon, instead of an actual Disney property in close proximity to the real Magic Kingdom. Moonee breathes on the glass door and stares at the distraught, newlywedded woman. Without turning, she murmurs to her sidekick Scooty (Christopher Rivera), “She’s about to cry…I can always tell when adults are about to cry.”

Through Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the small universe of the Magic Castle—along with other equally kitsch and chintzy highway-side motels—becomes enchanted. Like a precocious Magellan in kiddie stretch pants and a “Follow Your Dreams” t-shirt, Moonee roams about the premises, attempting to resuscitate dead fish by throwing them in four feet of chlorinated pool water, spitting on car windshields, pirouetting through brief but precipitous Florida cloudbursts, and setting fire to a deserted and onion grass-skirted condominium.

Despite the utter destruction that arises from many of Moonee’s excavations, often forged in concert with sidekicks Scooty and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), there are no traces of malice in her motivations. She knows no other way of being. No other way of having fun. For Moonee, flipping off a police helicopter is just like skipping stones in a pond.

Still from “The Florida Project” / Marc Schmidt (Courtesy)

Moonee remains at the center of “The Florida Project.” Even as we meet Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), with her long-drawn, phony mea culpas, “I’ve failed as a mother, Moonee!” (to which Moonee then chirps back with an undisciplined wag of her hand, “Yeah ma, you’re a disgrace!”), Moonee remains our eyes and ears. Baker is careful not to forsake her reality or, take the more common approach when it comes to children in film, turn her reality into delusion. Instead, he heightens her experiences—her adventures, her fears and her friendships are the fullest depictions of the human experience throughout the entire film.

Even as the Magic Castle’s somewhat surly, yet warm proprietor, Bobby (played by Willem DaFoe, who is, interestingly, the only “big name” actor in the production), emerges as the most trustworthy of any character, Moonee remains our sensory and experiential epicenter; and although Bobby occasionally intervenes in the lives of his residents, including Moonee, he does not succeed in saving anyone, not as far as we know.

Bobby comes close to a moral compass, but he is far too normal to actually assume the role. Still, he is a multi-dimensional revelation portrayed with uncanny closeness by DaFoe. He shows signs of a deadbeat past, as evidenced by his tense interactions with his Alfalfa-faced, cerulean-eyed 20-something son, who comes by occasionally to assist Bobby with maintenance projects. Despite the drudgery and depressiveness of Bobby’s day-to-day, he seems to maintain an odd sort of romance with his work.

His residents are precious to him—like his very own drug-addled, sex working, belligerent, and sometimes even nudist children. But he also knows what’s at stake. There’s evidence of an entire life—tried, failed, and tried—behind Bobby, and that this might be the last chance at a life he’s got. He paints the place purple. He counts his money because he needs it. He enforces a 24-hour vacate policy because if he doesn’t, the building owner will have something to say about it. He plays by the rules in a place where almost no one else does.

Halley, on the other hand, never once considers the gravity of a rule—whether that rule is Bobby’s rule, or a phantom commandment for living. Her apathy is impeccable…even borderline monstrous. For awhile, we find it within ourselves to forgive her. There is a moment where Halley brings Moonee and Jancey to a field just outside the gates of the Magic Kingdom. Fireworks begin to crackle just on the other side of the sky. “Those are for you,” Halley coos sweet propaganda to Jancey as the child blows out her birthday candles. We immediately want to hold onto that moment. We want to think everything will be okay. That Halley will finally begin to pull it together.

But—and this really is the beauty of Baker’s “project”—that doesn’t happen.

As money becomes more of a problem for Halley, her survival methods become more and more questionable. We see flip book-like shots of Moonee in the bathtub, humming blithely to herself and brushing her doll’s hair. A heavy hip hop bass blares—a different song each time—over Moonee’s wistful bathtime babble. Something isn’t right. A man bursts in. We have a pretty good idea. Halley and Moonee take “swimsuit selfies.” Halley pummels her best friend to the ground while her son, Scooty, watches. All this in the last third of the film. The last we see of Halley is her screaming face, her mouth hung open in F-bomb-shaped fury.

Eventually, we depart from the universes of Halley and Bobby, and by the close of the film, are left with only Moonee. We remember how the once devilish potty mouth surprised us as she stared at a woman through breathy glass and claimed that the woman was about to cry, that she could always tell when adults were about to cry. In the end, it’s Moonee who has the last cry.

“The Florida Project” tells the truth. Its final moments are pure surrealism, testing the limits of reality in a place that was built on the principle of magic—a place built for full-time escape artists. For the last shot, Baker reemploys his iPhone. He distorts Moonee’s magical machinations, making us even more aware of her reality. We realize that although nothing may be right, everything is real.