A24                    115 minutes                R          Reviewed October 12, 2017

Take a ride outside the boundaries of Disney World and discover the flip side of “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Writer/Director Sean Baker explores what childhood is like living on the margins of society in a transient  Orlando motel, called The Magic Castle. It’s anything but magic, except to the kids who make their own brand of mischief and magic living there.

Willem DaFoe is the only recognizable actor in a role very different from the predominately villainous ones he’s known for. But here, as the Manager of the motel, he’s the kind, compassionate voice of reason trying to make life bearable for the people in the motel. DaFoe’s sensitive portrayal is exceptional.

The rest of the cast were first time actors Baker wanted to use to make it more documentary like, and so much of the script was improvised. And Baker says he was always afraid the production would be shut down and wouldn’t be able to finish this film. He wasn’t even sure he had what he needed to edit it up.

The opening sequences of the film are strong as we’re introduced to Moonee reveling in her freedom and leading her little band of friends getting into all kinds of trouble. These children and their single mothers live shabby and desperate lives, except the kids don’t know that. Brooklyn Prince plays six year old Moonee. This funny little powerhouse commands your attention every moment she’s on camera. She is both cute and vulgar, spending the summer roaming free at the garish Wizard gift shot, orange and ice cream stands, doing whatever comes to mind with her buddies and new kid on the motel block, Jancey (Valerie Cotto). That includes everything from shutting off the motel’s power, throwing dead fish in the pool, begging to get ice cream, breaking into abandoned buildings, starting a fire or just spitting on cars from the balcony for the fun of it.

Moonee’s mother, Halley, a young, tattooed, chain smoking hustler exhibits even worse decision-making ability than her daughter. Bria Vinaite, in her first feature role, plays the Mom with unrestrained disdain for everything and everyone, except her daughter. Watching her, we keep hoping something will shake her into some kind of sensibility to change the direction of her life to make it better. The story follows her as she makes increasingly dangerous decisions that eventually lead to the destruction of her fragile family.

The only sympathetic voice urging Moonee and Halley to do the right thing is Bobby, played by Willem DaFoe.  Baker doesn’t stoop to making Bobby a savior or finding a happy ending for any of these outcasts. Instead, DaFoe simply tries to impose some kind of order in his compact, unmanageable community. He’s tired and exasperated, knowing all his efforts won’t save Halley, Moonee or any of the other unfortunates in this sub-culture. DaFoe, however, turns in a sensitive performance showing a man who refuses to lose his humanity. The scene where he hones in on a potential child predator and kicks him out protecting the kids is handled with strength and sensitivity.

These are all people no one really cares about. In fact, this is a segment of society most middle class Americans would rather not even know exists. That’s what makes sitting through the film painfully uncomfortable even as we laugh at Moonee’s cuteness and clever antics. She’s not stupid, just brazen and out of control.

One scene that drew our attention was at a restaurant where Moonee delivers an amazing stream of conscious monologue while eating everything in sight. How Baker could coax a focused performance like this from such a young actor is amazing. You could tell it was like she didn’t know the camera was on.

Baker’s direction gets bogged down in the the second act as the pace lags and the incidents feel repetitive until the final half hour. The scenes where Halley and Monee finally have to face the music are searing; filled with dread and rage. The mood swings of the kids and the fear of something bad happening to them keeps you on edge.

Baker shows the ability to corral these first time actors into telling a story that is desperate and disturbing, yet speckled at times with child like joy. This is a slice of life many would rather not see, but seeing Willem DaFoe interact with the raw talent in this raw drama makes for worthy viewing.