It is Summer break. Three young kids are amusing themselves by spitting at cars parked beneath their vantage point on the balcony of The Magic Castle Motel, much to the frustration of long-suffering manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). One boy is subsequently grounded by his father and forbidden to play with the other two children, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who scarper off on their mischievous way.
The Magic Castle Motel is one of many motels originally built on the outskirts of Walt Disney World in Florida to cater for tourists. Now they are home to individuals and families down on their luck. Moonee lives there with her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who employs a variety of petty scams to get money out of tourists. Scooty’s mother works at a local diner and slips food out to the children through the back door. She and Halley are friends, but the relationship is clearly one-sided.
When Moonee and Scooty befriend Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives with her grandmother in a nearby motel, they take her on a tour of the neighbourhood. All the while Bobby keeps an eye out for them, remonstrating with them when they sabotage the motel’s power supply, but protecting them from a creepy stranger and letting them share an ice-cream in the air-conditioned motel office on the strict condition “one drip and you’re out”.
Although he cops abuse from various tenants whom he has to eject for non-payment of rent, drug trafficking, prostitution, vandalism or violence, Bobby is more compassionate than most of them deserve. Whether the comment, “This isn’t a premises, it’s a dump”, is deserved, The Magic Castle Motel is a pretty awful environment for kids to live in. However, there is only so much that Bobby can do to protect Moonee and her delinquent mother. As Halley’s behaviour gets more and more out of control, so too does her daughter’s. The kids initially find fun in relatively harmless things like the aforementioned spitting and spying upon weathered old Gloria (Sandy Kane) as she sunbakes topless and drinks alcohol in the pool area. But when they find a cigarette lighter, their misdemeanours become scarily serious.
Co-writers Chris Bergoch and Sean Baker based their screenplay on interviews with real-life motel dwellers from the area where the film was shot. They set out to show how disadvantaged kids could make their own fun outside the theme park that they could not afford to visit. Most of the cast were first-time, non-professional actors. The children were all cast locally in Florida, while Bria Vinaite was cast from Instagram. This, added to Sean Baker’s direction and Alexis Zabe’s cinematography, endows the film with a documentary feel. The film tempers its presentation of major social issues by showing them from the kids’ perspective.
Although the children are the stars of the film, at the core of the film is the outstanding performance by Willem Dafoe, whose acting technique could best be summed up as 'less is more'. Dafoe economically conveys the quintessentially empathetic nature of his character, even though we are given only a hint of Bobby’s past life in his dialogue with son Jack (Caleb Landry Jones).
While this is an undeniably provocative film, it is also a celebration of the resilience of people marginalised by society. Above all, it has heart and humour. Highly recommended.