Over the next month, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2017. Next up is Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. (Read our previous entries here.)
The Magic Castle Inn & Suites in Kissimmee, Florida, is not quite as enchanting as its fairytale namesake one town over in Orlando’s Disney World. Its bright purple exterior is somewhere between kitsch and outright eyesore, and its inhabitants are an unpredictable bunch. “The man in there gets arrested a lot,” 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) explains to a friend as she shows her around the building. “This woman thinks she’s married to Jesus.” Moonee and her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live a tough life in one of the Magic Castle’s motel rooms. They’re part of the country’s “hidden homeless,” people (often single parents and children) who have a temporary roof over their heads but no longer-term housing of their own.
To the viewer, Moonee’s life might seem distressing. Neglected by her mom, she spends most of her time running around the motel with her friends, causing serious trouble, and often harassing other residents. But Moonee still appears carefree, partly because of her young age and partly because of Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the gently wound manager of the Magic Castle who devotes much of his day to looking out for her. To Moonee, Bobby sometimes seems like a tyrant, always arriving at the wrong moment to spoil her amusement, but the audience can see that he’s more of a grizzled guardian angel. There’s no scene that better sums up Bobby’s character than one brief, private exchange between him and a flock of birds that arrives near the end of the movie.