Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

It looks like a purple popsicle melting in the sun: a three-story motel, decked out with pastel towers and spires, where even the curbs lining the parking lot are painted a bubblegum lavender. This is the primary backdrop of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, and it’s a real place, tucked away on a strip of likeminded novelty establishments just outside Orlando. The Magic Castle, whose name creates a deliberate Mouse House association its amenities can’t match, doesn’t just play host to tourists on a budget. It also serves as unofficial low-income housing for struggling locals with no home of their own. A gaping chasm separates the actual hardscrabble lives of these full-time residents from the discount-Disney paradise the exterior design strains to advertise. But The Florida Project, which isn’t a documentary but sometimes looks like one, doesn’t belabor the irony. After all, for many of the youngest guests, there’s plenty of fun to be had running wild across a fake magic kingdom, however close but tantalizingly out of reach the real one might be.

It’s a great setting—for the vividly tacky mini-golf atmosphere of the motel and surrounding businesses (lots of plastic apes and pirates, towering over their strip-mall domain), but also for the men and women sheltered within, scraping by on hustles and hard jobs. These are the kind of Americans to which Baker is perpetually drawn. Give or take a puppet-starring sitcom, he’s spent his career throwing a spotlight over people other movies tend to exploit or stereotype or just ignore entirely. The writer-director’s last film, Tangerine, followed a rowdy ensemble of marginalized Californians—transgender prostitutes, an immigrant cabby—across the unglamorous underbelly of Los Angeles. The Florida Project loses the jagged iPhone imagery of that big breakthrough, but the colors (and characters) shine just as supernova-bright on 35mm.

For Baker, this is an empathetic peak: a truthful and sublimely bittersweet slice of life, tracing celebratory highs and lamentable lows on the outer economic edges of the Sunshine State. Incident tends to hold more interest to the filmmaker than plot, and The Florida Project pushes his storytelling even further into kicking-around naturalism, propelled by the sometimes abrasive, nearly always funny personalities on screen. Much of the film, set over a single sweltering summer, adopts a waist-high point-of-view, trailing motormouthed latchkey child Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) as she stirs up daily trouble with Scooty (Christopher Rivera), the boy who lives directly below her at The Magic Castle, and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a new playmate from the inn across the way. The child actors are terrific little Duracell batteries of rambunctious energy, and as the trio cuts an unsupervised path of mischief across the property—spitting on cars, roughhousing in abandoned buildings, chattering nonstop—The Florida Project conjures a sense of carefree everyday adventure that lesser films about childhood only wish they could summon.

Photo: A24

Baker also shifts to the longer, tougher days of the motel’s grownup occupants—a choice that spiritually aligns The Florida Project with a DIY classic of multigenerational focus, Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep. Chief among the film’s adult subjects is Moonee’s tattooed, shit-talking tornado of a mother, Halley (Instagram celebrity and first-time actor Bria Vinaite, in a performance of pure star-making attitude). In some ways, Halley is still a kid herself; she eggs on her daughter’s misbehavior and backtalk, and carves out time here and there for some twentysomething misadventure, hitting the club with Scooty’s mother, Ashley (Mela Murder), who slips them free food out the backdoor of the diner where she waitresses. But The Florida Project also recognizes the difficulty of raising a kid with nothing to your name—an overbearing responsibility that forces Halley, who struggles to find a job, to desperate measures. Many of the Magic Castle guests look down on her parenting, but Baker is charitable: He sees the bad decisions, but also Halley’s attempts to shelter Moonee from the hard realities of poverty, trying to preserve for her a real childhood, even as she fends off despair and destitution.

In a cast of superb unknowns, a familiarly craggy face emerges. Willem Dafoe plays the motel’s put-upon manager Bobby, who runs The Magic Castle like a loving but exhausted father: chasing rent, putting out fires, and mediating conflicts, but also sticking his neck out for the guests. (“They’re good kids,” he says of Moonee’s hell-raising posse. “Most of the time.”) For Dafoe, who’s lived a sidewinding lifetime of interesting character-actor roles, Bobby is a generous anomaly: a figure of ordinary, paternal decency. He inspires maybe the funniest, most moving performance of Dafoe’s career, frustration constantly melting under the warm affection this proprietor feels for his cash-strapped residents. That Baker never gives Bobby much in the way of backstory, or even a personal life, strengthens the impression that he’s a kind of stealth directorial surrogate, watching this bustling corner of humanity with a mixture of amusement, exasperation, and, eventually, heartache.

Photo: A24

Baker shows a thorough interest in the details of his characters’ challenging lives: the panhandle scams Halley runs to put food on the table (or on the motel bed, as it were); the odd jobs Bobby does around the property, trying to please his sometimes unruly tenants; the regular formality of sending long-term guests out to another establishment for the night, so they don’t establish legal residency. But even as it starkly depicts the realities of its characters’ circumstances, The Florida Project never dips into hard-knock-life miserablism, into poverty porn; its too alive with the boisterous spirit of its community. Baker walks a lot of fine lines: He observes his characters, with their anarchic misbehavior and mistakes, with a total lack of judgment, while also refusing to romanticize them. And though there’s an implicit critique in the film’s depiction of so much financial hardship happening on the outskirts of a booming tourist industry, it stays unspoken, with nary a boo-and-hiss-worthy capitalist villain in sight. The Florida Project never becomes a tract.

Not that Baker is a neutral party. For as much as his film taps into a venerable tradition of observational realism (witnessing, never editorializing), it’s not “objective.” An indisputable ally of the disenfranchised, Baker honors his subjects by telling their stories honestly, without Hollywood distortion or flattering embellishment, and through a gaggle of actors mainly plucked from the area, not central casting. But he has too much compassion to think like a pure documentarian; at a certain point, he hits the limits of realism—and The Florida Project, in a deeply moving parting gesture, finds a way to stay true to its vision while also protecting his characters (and us) from an unbearable inevitability. There’s great integrity to showing life as it is really is, warts and all. But sometimes showing it as it should be has value, too.

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