The sunshine state looks so colourful and yet so grotty at the same time throughout this drama, which is a fair representation of the weirdly wonderful way Florida does actually look. Amongst these bold shots there’s a fantastically realistic tone to watching a set of children independently finding themselves and friendships.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) resides at an extended stay motel with her less than present mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). From spitting on cars to claiming free food she has a ball, spending her time with a couple of other kids, much to the annoyance of motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) despite his protective nature.
Straight away, we’re faced with the bright palette of this film; a purple wall backdrops the opening credits and during this movie we see wacky and loud colours of Florida state outlets and buildings. Kissimmee is the perfect setting because it looks touristy enough to have the children revel in their fun but neglected in a serious way as we watch them roam unattended through a place that seems stuck in a rut.
It’s this set up of America that may prove to be the biggest moral idea of the film. The screenplay lands us amongst a group of people not often represented and seeing their lives, however grim they might appear, gives the story its openly empathetic quality. Moonee’s mum Halley may have her faults but we still see that she cares for her daughter. Bobby is a moaner, a grouch even, but he genuinely becomes a caring figure through the film, he for me was the character I was most interested in. There was a believable good guy attitude he carried, no more evident than when he gets some old geezer to follow him for some soda.
Every scene directed in this by Sean Baker is one that leaves you to sit back and almost breathe in the growing up of Moonee and her friends. Certain films have that big moment in a scene where you can tell the impact is being driven home but in this feature there’s a collection of moments and none feel forced, instead the director invites us to observe the dramatic unraveling in an attentive not showy way. It’s as if Baker is inviting the audience to monitor Moonee’s life, not in a judging kind of way but more in a manner that feels life affirming. Halley is someone to slightly frown upon but the focus truly is on Moonee and her kingdom so to speak; her Magic Kingdom within the Magic Castle motel and beyond.
I must say that even with all these positives, the ending didn’t agree with me. It swiftly arrives after a brilliantly emotional scene where I admit I shed a tear, or three. Then the camera kookily speeds up and transfers to an obvious mobile device. The music over the top may have been right for the scene but feels slightly kitsch and it ends any of that overwhelming heartbreaking drama we just witnessed. I was also taken right out of the drama by the ease of access to the finale with no money or security to stop them!
Prince steals the show with a genuine glee and boundless energy. She runs, grins and leads her merry troops with chemistry but can downplay that childlike wonder when sitting back and looking on at the adult world around her, felt heavily when she questions her mum from time to time. Also, as said, a framing of her near the end got me right in the feels as she acts her socks off. Dafoe was a great presence in this, I could actually imagine him as the manager of this tackily painted cheap Floridian motel. I would have liked him in it slightly more right at the end but at the end of the day the film is about the fun and innocent frivolity of childhood. Vinaite is a gripping disturbance throughout and acts in such a way that you can’t help but shake your head at her behaviour.
The happiest place on Earth may reside just a hop, skip and frenzied run away but this film sees us find the happiest place through the eyes of a confident and legitimate star.