Photo courtesy of A24

For most, Walt Disney World is a fantasy land where dreams come true. In “The Florida Project,” it’s an elusive presence that seeps into the surrounding communities in the form of cheap pleasures. Director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”) presents a side of the childlike utopia that has been swept aside and left to bake in the brutal Orlando sun.

Built along a highway just around the corner from the amusement park, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her young, reckless mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) live in a purple motel ironically dubbed “The Magic Kingdom.” Out on summer break, Moonee and the rest of the kids living in the pastel strip run wild, transforming the rundown tourist hub into aconcrete paradise.

Unlike most portrayals of American poverty, Baker doesn’t exploit the struggles of his characters in order to reproach his audience. The film humanizes the lives of the “hidden homeless” through the universal resilience of childhood. In an interview with PBS, Baker deems “The Florida Project” to be “The Little Rascals” of 2017, both of which create a captivating juxtaposition between the innocence of youth and the bleak reality of living on the margin.

Much of what makes “The Florida Project” so compelling are techniques consistently seen in Baker’s work such as mixing seasoned actors like Willem Dafoe (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) with first-timers like Bria Vinaite. This intermingling of expertise and inexperience enhanced the realism of the narrative as well as played on the central theme of naivety.

Although there are many parallels in approach, Baker has refined his vision with this film. Unlike his 2015 drama “Tangerine” which was recorded completely on an iPhone 5s, “The Florida Project” is a series of colorful vignettes taken on 35mm film. Each shot is thoughtfully composed without seeming heavy-handed. The florid shades of the motel strip and the mismatched vibrancy of the kids’ clothes cater to simple and yet striking compositions.

While Willem Dafoe gives a stirring performance as the fatherly motel manager, the newcomers are unquestioningly the standout stars. Brooklyn Prince’s character, Moonee, has all of the charm and unruliness of a rambunctious six-year-old. In most of the scenes involving Prince and the rest of the child actors, it’s clear that Baker didn’t give the kids much direction but just let them be themselves, resulting in many hilariously            genuine moments.

Bria Vinaite, who stars as Moonee’s mother Halley, had never even considered acting until Baker reached out to her through Instagram asking if she’d be interested in the part. Taking on a lead role for such an emotional character would have lead most amateurs to an overwrought, one-dimensional portrayal. Vinaite, however, gives a fearless, multiform performance that avoids parody, masterfully encapsulating the unique two-fold relationship of a young mother and daughter being both maternal and sisterly. 

“The Florida Project” is Baker’s tour de force. With “Tangerine” and “Prince of Broadway,” the director had already proven his aptitude in portraying the underrepresented communities of America, but this film soars above the rest, featuring an exceptional alchemy of humor and pain, reality and fiction.