Sean Baker might be the most fascinating filmmaker working today.  The official description of hIs 2015 breakout film Tangerine sounds like the most insufferable and cloying indie film ever made—a story about two black transgender prostitutes and an Armenian immigrant cab driver written and directed by a white guy on an iPhone—but it’s one of the most beautiful and human films ever made and an essential piece of LGBT cinema.  Baker’s follow up, The Florida Project, is somehow even more gorgeous and personal, shifting his lens from the donut shops of West Los Angeles to the impoverished motels on the edges of Orlando.

It’s at the Magic Castle motel, a play on the Magic Kingdom park, where we meet Moonee, a wild and freespirited six year-old girl with a foul mouth and an incomparable ingenuity.  Moonee lives in an extended-stay motel room with her young, unemployed mother Halley and spends most of her time causing trouble with her friends Scooty and Jancey.  These hijinks include scamming tourists for spare change so they can buy ice cream, hocking loogies on other people’s cars, and generally annoying the other tenants.  Halley, meanwhile, earns her rent hustling tourists with a variety of wholesale purchased goods and ill-gotten property, desperately trying to keep herself and Moonee afloat. Overlooking all of this is Bobby, the kind-hearted but exasperated manager of the Magic Castle who struggles with (literally) keeping the lights on while also helping to keep some of his most disadvantaged customers afloat.

Drenched in vibrant colors, Baker’s inherent knack for soaring imagery is even more refined here than it was in Tangerine.  Shot on 35mm, The Florida Project uses the almost surreal setting of the outskirts of Walt Disney World, including buildings shaped like wizards, oranges, and even the candy-colored purple walls of the Magic Castle itself to create almost a fantasy world for Moonee to traverse.  The lavender, bubble-gum-like stucco exterior of the Magic Castle has been seared into my memory.  Frames evoke a childlike innocence and imagination that permeates one’s mind.  Images like a rainbow cast over the motel’s roof or a nighttime candlelight birthday celebration supplemented by the glow of fireworks are dazzling standouts of a film where every inch and every molecule looks exceedingly lovingly crafted.

But it isn’t all fireworks and rainbows in the Magic Castle.  Baker’s greatest skill is a spectacular ability to portray gleaming beauty while also shining a light on the harsh economic and societal obstacles that face the most underprivileged among us.  Tangerine never let us forget that the transgender community was shamed, abused, and discriminated against, but Baker acknowledges and confronts that without wallowing in it’s indignity.  Similarly, The Florida Project neither pretends that everything in Moonee and Halley’s lives are perfect nor does it become an after-school special level treatise of the hardships of poverty.

That balance is found primarily in the vast ensemble of performances in the film, as the community of the Magic Castle and the surrounding motels form the backbone of Baker’s masterpiece.  Whether it be the middle-aged grandmother raising her daughter’s two illegitimate children at the similarly Disney-adjacently named Future World, the Magic Castle’s visibly annoyed staff who have to work as though there aren’t children playing hide and seek in the lobby, or the various patrons who refuse to obey the pool rules of “no alcoholic beverages,” the community of The Florida Project brings an energy and honesty that solidifies the film’s almost plot-less nature.  And if that wasn’t enough, The Florida Project also boasts two all-time great performances — a star-making turn by child actor Brooklynn Prince and career-best work by 62 year-old Willem Dafoe.  

Dafoe in particular is striking here.  Dafoe has long since embraced his jagged facial features and wild eyes to become one of our most iconic antagonistic actors, but here he’s doing more subtle and friendly notes.  His Bobby brings a familiar face to the Magic Castle, and his role, oddly enough, reaches for something eliciting more his voice acting role from Finding Nemo than anything else in his filmography.  There’s a real sense of Bobby’s mental, physical and emotional exhaustion in every movement Dafoe makes, but also a genuine goodwill that envelopes each word.  Dafoe also reaches for one of his funniest performances in years, including one scene involving a trio of herons that made me laugh harder than most comedies I’ve scene this year. It’s a gauntlet of a performance that does a great deal of the film’s emotional heavy lifting, and Dafoe has never been better.

But it’s newcomer Brooklynn Prince who steals the show.  A film like The Florida Project lives and dies on its central actor, and Prince is a revelation as the six year-old Moonee.  Often times child actors are either too wooden that they fail to come across as real human beings (think Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace) or their performances are broad and hammy, but Prince is marvelously natural in the leading role and never once comes across as anything less than a real life human child.  She’s playful, energetic, and full of charisma and wonder that it’s impossible not to be transfixed to the screen when she’s in the frame.  Whether it be making cow noises or causing motel-wide blackouts, Prince is never less than completely enchanting to watch.  It’s a positively awe-inspiring work.

I’m still not over how much I absolutely loved The Florida Project.  While the film is relatively plotless, it is never aimless, which is a problem most “slice of life” films suffer from.  The film’s constant focus on Bobby, Moonee and her mother Halley provides a strong structure that Baker builds an entire world around.  Every character, setting, and frame of The Florida Project is telling a story, and the world of the Magic Castle is brimming with life and personality.  Lovingly designed and constructed, The Florida Project is the best film of 2017 so far.