Sean Baker's "The Florida Project" takes place in a blindingly purple low-budget motel named the Magic Castle, just down Route 192 from Disney's Magic Kingdom. For the children of single parents who live there, the Kissimmee, Florida, motel is a playground — even if they're living in poverty.
"The Florida Project," which opens in theaters Friday, is an ebullient, candy-colored movie wrapped around the very real issue of hidden homelessness. Families nationwide are living below the poverty line and eking out an existence in cheap motels, but the problem is particularly acute — and ironic — in the shadows of Walt Disney World.
"When Chris Bergoch, my co-screenwriter, brought it to my attention, I was like: 'This is happening? There are literally kids who are homeless outside of what's considered the most magical place on the Earth for children?'" said Baker, the 46-year-old independent filmmaker.
Studies and investigative reports, including one in 2014 by The Associated Press , have found that an estimated 1,700 families are homeless in Florida's Osceola County, with most living in the motels surrounding one of the country's top tourist destinations. Efforts in recent years have been stepped up to get mentally ill homeless people off the streets around Orlando, yet the county still lacks shelters. Many simply find their low-paying service industry jobs don't cover rent.
But if you're expecting a stern lesson from "The Florida Project," you'll be surprised to find one of the most vibrant, spirited and heartbreaking films of the year. "The Florida Project" stars Willem Dafoe as the kindly father-figure manager Bobby, but its central characters are played by newcomers. The feisty, scamming Halley (Bria Vinaite) is the 23-year-old mother to Moonee (7-year-old Brooklynn Prince), a free-spirited troublemaker who, with her friends (including the 6-year-old Valeria Cotto), are a delightful menace to Bobby and the motel's residents.
"We wanted it to be a throwback, in a way. What I mean by that is: Little Rascals 2017," said Baker. "I wanted to do something very similar where it was presenting the kids as kids, first and foremost — and have the audience embrace them, love them, laugh at them. And then hopefully at the end, the audience is sitting during the credits, and the issues have had a light shined on them that will have them talking on their way home."
In stories ranging from pornography actresses in the San Fernando Valley ("Starlet") to immigrants in New York ("The Prince of Broadway"), Baker has made depicting the lives of those Hollywood often overlooks a specialty. His last movie, "Tangerine," was a micro-budgeted breakthrough, winning a Spirit Award and earning the praise of Francis Ford Coppola. Baker shot the transgender prostitute tale on iPhones with a mix of professional and non-professional actors, including the celebrated leads Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez.
"When I made 'Tangerine,' I moved to Los Angeles and I thought that Los Angeles was shot out, meaning that there's no other stories to tell," said Baker. "Then I found there's a whole other world south of Olympic that we haven't even seen in film unless it was 'Straight Outta Compton.' You realize who's telling these stories. They're not thinking outside their box, and often their sugar-coated visions of who they are."
"My films are a response to what I don't see," added Baker.
"The Florida Project," the director says, was an effort to go further in packaging an issue film as an entertainment. The approach drew the interest of Dafoe, a veteran actor eager to appear as a "non-actor," he says. Especially appealing was the opportunity to work among non-professional performers on location in Orlando.
"It was one of those experiences where you able to riff off what was there. You were able to deal with what's in the room," said Dafoe. "My dressing room was not a trailer. It was one of those rooms. Troy lived down the hall. Troy became my friend. Troy was a resident who lived there for many years. That adds a dimension. It makes you learn things and gives you an experience."
Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, "The Florida Project" — as well as Dafoe and Brooklynn's performances — has been widely lauded as among the best of the year. No one has enjoyed the ride more than Brooklynn, a natural performer who has tweeted and Instagramed her adventures. Making the movie, the Orlando native said, was like summer camp. She and her young co-star, Val, now consider themselves best friends.
"Me and my mom and dad went over this," Brooklynn said of the film's more adult nature. "They weren't really sure about this movie. But I came to them and I said, 'I want to bring awareness to these kids and show people the light — my light for Jesus.'"
The low-budget production was for both Brooklynn and Dafoe an eye-opener: an up-close view of the homelessness most never see.
"I learned things about a certain kind of poverty, a certain kind of cycle of homelessness and hopelessness," said Dafoe. "It's a rich movie. It's a poor little rich movie."