When thinking of Walt Disney’s eponymous theme park, one strikes up an image of catharsis, the stable family released upon the striking rides and fluorescent buildings, free to indulge in a gratifying fantasy. What one doesn’t think of is the realm just outside of that, a world that writer/director Sean Baker seeks to remind us of: the impoverished many, living on the outskirts of a dreamy life, straining to pay for something as essential as their rent for small single bedrooms. The Florida Project puts this forgotten reality front and centre, but tells its story in a way you might not expect: Baker opts to filter his narrative through the experiences of a group of naïve and imaginative children led by Moonee (six-year-old newcomer Brooklynn Prince).

Moonee lives in a purple-painted motel run by the charming and protective Bobby (Willem Dafoe), labelled ‘The Magic Castle’ to undoubtedly capitalise on its location just outside of Florida’s Walt Disney Resort. She’s surrounded by a familiar rogues’ gallery of rebellious children: Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Dicky (Aiden Malik), as well as a fresh face, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). But she also lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), a young woman struggling to make ends meet, forced to sell pre-purchased perfume on to guests at local hotels, as well as her own body online.

This paints a decrepit picture, perhaps promising the American equivalent of a Ken Loach film such as Kes. And yet, Baker maintains the creative, optimistic spark of his young protagonists, applying broad brushstrokes of colour across the canvas of this underprivileged suburban life. The Florida Project is a surprisingly bright and hopeful film, its aesthetic reflective of the mind-set of Moonee and her friends: Alexis Zabe’s cinematography captures a pastel-coloured setting that imbues a sense of wonderment and interest into the most mundane of buildings, materialising the imaginative attitude of children. Moreover, it’s a film that refuses to wallow in dilapidation and despair, opting to follow Moonee and co. as they explore local locations and play amongst themselves: they discover abandoned buildings, coerce residents to buy them luxuries such as ice cream, participate in games of hide-and-seek throughout the rooms of the motel, to the accepting surprise of Dafoe’s Bobby.

This all works so wonderfully, thanks to the believable performances that bring this story to life. Moonee could have come across as a dislikeable brat, when one considers her rebellious tendencies. In between those moments of play and exploration, one finds Moonee encouraging her friends to spit at local cars and mock motel residents, such as a woman who chooses to go topless at the side of the on-site pool. But Brooklynn Prince emanates such positive energy that it is impossible to not be charmed by her. She’s confident, mobile and endearingly emotive at key moments: in effect, she’s the perfect figure to exemplify The Florida Project’s creative ambitions.

Dafoe and Vinaite are equally great. This is Dafoe’s most likeable performance in years, a far cry from his work in films such as Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog. His interactions with the kids are priceless: take the aforementioned hide-and-seek sequence, as he harmlessly follows along with the antics, demonstrating the ease with which Dafoe can turn on the charisma. Vinaite also delivers a fine first performance as a mother that, in spite of her inherent flaws, does everything she can to provide for her child: her aggressive outbursts are moving, her tender moments with Moonee welcomed.

Baker has done an extraordinary job with The Florida Project, truly encapsulating the simplicity of the childlike experience. Baker doesn’t adopt a broad perspective: this isn’t an institutional critique. Instead, it’s a raw film, a true film and a film that hones in on the details of the life of a child. Consider a seemingly disposable scene with Moonee in a bathtub, grooming her horse doll. With a delicate touch, she lathers the toy’s hair, massages its skin, washes it under the tap. She exuberates a caring, tender demeanour in this scene, an image that inspires a subtle sense of spectatorial sanguinity: in spite of her disadvantageous situation, Moonee still finds occasion to care and nurture. It’s these moments that urge the film towards being something more than a pitiful cry for acknowledgement. It sets out to show characters who find pleasure amidst the poverty. Their imaginations run wild, despite the constrictions on what they can have. And while the film certainly takes us in darker directions, it never forgets its core perspective, never far from leading us in another, brighter direction: The Florida Project, as an honest depiction of childhood, is simply a masterpiece.

Dir: Sean Baker

Scr: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch

Prd: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou

Cast: Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones

DOP: Alexis Zabe

Music: Lorne Balfe

The Florida Project is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.