Review by © Jane Freebury
It’s summer holidays in Orlando, Florida. Disney World is just over the road, and out of reach. What is there to do when there’s no money to spend? It does not present any problem for three young children who are living at the Magic Castle motel, because they make their own fun.
There’s a holiday ambience in the backdrop of cheery, candy-coloured structures that dot the neighbourhood outside the Disney precinct. An orange juice dome, a gift shop in the shape of a witches’ hat and a soft-serve kiosk supposed to make you think of a dollop of ice cream. The names of places like Futureland and Enchanted Inn help impart a bit of holiday zing too, confected as they are. The images are especially apt with jaunty angles and fish-eye frames to accentuate a child’s point-of-view. Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) is superbly sensitive to the innocence and magic of childhood.
One of the buildings is a long, low three-storey motel that looks like a slice of layered lilac cake with cream trim – Magic Castle is home to six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). Her young mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) is struggling to make ends meet but at the same time determined that her daughter should never want for anything or feel she is missing out.
Halley’s one great skill is shielding her young daughter from their seriously disadvantaged predicament, teaching her how to turn a dismal situation on its head and find joy in things. Whether it’s celebrating a birthday with cupcake and candle on a picnic in a field while watching Disney fireworks, or cheering a helicopter as it takes off on a joy ride, something they could never afford.
They are far from the minority at Magic Castle, which appears to be home to low-income and no-income individuals and families, many single-parent units. Some of them bond by helping each other out, minding each others’ children, pilfering food at work or turning a blind eye. Motel manager Bobby, a principled, patient and caring man, becomes surrogate parent to the children. It is a wonderful role for Willem Dafoe, who shows the other side of his chiselled-jaw persona.
The centre of her mother’s world, Moonee has confidence in spades. She is never short of a good idea either as she and her little gang roam around unsupervised all-day long. Miraculously, and unlikely as it seems, they stay safe and never get into serious trouble beyond a telling off from Bobby when he catches them on CCTV entering the amenities room before the power goes out. He doesn’t take kindly to ice cream spills in motel reception either, or to staking out an observation point when a guest sunbakes topless at the pool.
While inventive, cheeky Moonee is a rascal, and we enjoy hanging out with her, the film is of course underlining its point with this delicate material. That childhood is a special time, and each child has a right to experience the magic, to be free-spirited and give flight to the imagination.
Unfortunately, there are limits. Halley is a product of a system but she also has responsibilities as a mother. The idyll cannot last. Baker’s film offers a tranche of life, a last stand at the inn, as it steps back from making any judgement.
However, it is Bobby who takes action when enough is enough. Halley turns on a friend, a fellow struggling mother, violently and then turns to desperate measures that put Moonee in moral danger.
A young mother, barely an adult herself, without life skills or life options, or much sense of responsibility, Halley is certainly trapped. Her daughter runs around without supervision but Halley is the first to lash out and blame others when Moonee runs away.
In the end, her sense of entitlement and sense of grievance leave Halley isolated, stuck in a cul-de-sac where fantasy is the only sanctuary and the only way to escape.
Rated MA 15+, 1 hour 51 mins
Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7