By John H. Foote
Along the highway to Disney World in Florida there is a tract of low rent hotels, home to poverty-stricken people who pay by the week for a roof over their head. It is ironic that such low living exists so close to a fantasy theme park where dreams come true at a ridiculously inflated price. The children that inhabit these hotels with their parents will never get to Disney World despite the fact they see other children coming and going, their faces a glazed delight at what they are going to see or have seen. Yet they know they will not ever get close to even the gates of the place.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a six-year-old little girl living in such a hotel with her mother. Her mind races with thoughts the moment she wakes up in the morning, making each day an adventure, not really aware of her plight in life, what she is missing. To her each day is a rollicking adventure, filled with ice cream, which she and her friends beg for, mischief at the hotel, or running through fields near a pond casually mentioning that there are alligators in the water. She loves her mother unconditionally, and her mother loves her, there is no question, but Hailey (Bria Vinaite) is barely an adult herself, a young mother, single, doing everything and eventually anything to pay the rent due at the end of the week to keep a roof over their heads. She is one of those young moms who at perhaps nineteen knows everything about life yet deep in their hearts are terrified of what the truth of their existence is. They are ignorant of so much, entitled, fly off the handle, are prone to outbursts of rage, yet love their child with a fierce love that is unconditional. Of course Hayley’s love can be seen as abusive for the potential harm she puts her child in to, locking her in the bathroom playing with her tub toys while she turns tricks to raise the rent money.
Hayley counts on others for her survival and takes grand advantage of everyone she can: her waitress friend for waffles in the morning, which Moonee picks up at the backdoor of the diner; her hotel manager who extends her payment period whenever he can and protects her from the other tenants who want her out; everyone. And she calls them out when she feels they have let her down. It is always their fault in her eyes. Always.
Moonee and her crew, two other little children, spend their days creating games in and around the hotel. Their wild imaginations come up with the craziest games, though they sometimes run afoul of Bobby (Willem Dafoe) the gruff but protective hotel manager. We see where Moonee gets it, when Hayley treats a little girl to a late night picnic to watch the nightly fireworks that take place at Disney World for her birthday. She knows Moonee gets in trouble; she suspects she is responsible for burning down an abandoned building, but laughs it off.
The pure joy on Moonee’s face is what you have to watch, she is utterly alive. We know her life is lousy, we know she is not getting proper care or food, but she does not. She lives day by day in this incredible place where she can run wild (however dangerous) and be a kid. We know she will grow up fast, we know she will take care of her mother if her mother can manage to keep her, we can see her life is headed towards what and how her mother lives now. Or Moonee might be one of those exceptional children who manages to break the cycle and become something extraordinary.
When the law catches up to Hayley, Moonee runs to her friend and starts to tell her what is happening and her poor little face crumples into tears and she sobs at the realization of what is happening. Her friend, no older than her, takes her hand and they run to where they have never gone, where dreams come true.
It is a soaring moment in a stunning, raw film that touches upon a part of society often shunned. Director Sean Baker who directed his first film on an iPhone, gives us a film that is as real as can be, as though he took his cameras to the streets, found these people and made a film. We know they are actors, but the performances are astonishing.
Brooklynn Prince gives the greatest performance given by a child I have ever seen. In the entire of film history I have not seen a performance this deep, complex or real. Her meltdown at the end reduced me to tears, and the eyes of all those in the cinema were left glistening. She is pure magic. I will forever mourn the fact she was not a Best Actress nominee because she clearly deserved to be, an absolutely stunning performance.
Dafoe is a gentle soul running a rundown motel that he knows is a dump of a place. Gruff, often angry he is left fixing things that Moonee and her friends break, yet when a predator comes on the property he sees it at once and grabs him to get him away from the children. Both exasperated yet protective of the children, Bobby is a truly decent man. Dafoe is superb, Oscar worthy in fact for supporting actor.
Vinaite is equally good, brilliant, and also deserving of an Oscar nomination for supporting actress. Her fury is apparent in every scene, just below the surface ready to explode at the slightest provocation, yet she will do anything to feed and shelter her child, even if it means stealing and turning tricks.
The movie strokes the soul with its raw and visceral power. Brilliant and unsettling, yet ultimately soaring
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.