Her name is Moonee and she will first steal, then break your heart in this breathtaking film.
Set in and around the tacky strip leading to Disney World in Florida, we are plunged into an array of cheap, brightly painted hotels, those cheap gift shops, all leading to the Magic Kingdom. Just a few miles from the world of Moonee and her friends, it is the unattainable fairy world far apart from hers. The little girl, a born hell raiser is six, living in poverty, but never seems to notice. She wakes up to adventures borne in her active imagination each and every day. She might long for the Magic Kingdom, but knows she does not need it, she has her own all around her.
Her mother, Hayley, works scams all week selling perfume to be able to pay the rent and counts on a friend for food. But when an act of vandalism proves to dangerous to her friend, she cuts off the food supply and bans her son from contact with the rambunctious Moonee. This sends the already volatile Hayley into a downward spiral and she begins hooking, careful to keep it from her daughter, who despite her poor choices, she clearly loves.
When child protection services come calling, we realize as does Moonee, her world is about to fall apart. In an extraordinary, unaffected, strikingly authentic performance, little Brooklynn Prince is simply a revelation as Moonee. Her brown eyes see the world with Wonder, despite their being little in her life. Part of that comes from her hot tempered mom, played by Bria Vinaite, who knows exactly her situation but makes everything a game for her daughter. Prince gives the kind of performance that gets kids nominated for Academy Awards, as astounding piece of acting, the likes of which I have not encountered.
Quietly and effectively protecting the child and her mom is Bobby, the cranky much put upon manager of the hotel, who spends his days often fixing what Moonee and her friends have damaged. His watchful eye also sees predators getting too close to the kids, and he knows more about Hayley than she thinks he does. Willem Defoe is superb as Bobby, one moment bemoaning the kids dripping ice cream in his precious lobby, the next ferociously banning a man he senses is a pedophile from coming near them, physically tossing him off the property.
Vinaite is very good as Hayley, though you can sense some lack of training as her tantrums become redundant. That said, she is very good, sad, as she knows her life is no life for the child she so loves. Perhaps that single aspect drew me in deeper to the film because usually in films about poverty, the children are treated as a burden. Not here, when Hayley scores, Moonee wins, treated to a shopping spree in a dollar store, loving like all little girls, everything shiny and that sparkles.
Sean Baker brilliantly directs the film, seeming to capture life as it happens. Sometimes it feels as though he has simply plunked his camera down to capture life. The movement Moonee realizes her world is about to fall apart, finally we see her break, and big tears fall from her eyes as her face crumples. It is simply one of the cinema’s most searing images. Brilliant.