Chris’s review published on Letterboxd:
Childhood imagination and innocence superbly juxtaposed with the harsh realities faced on a daily basis when trying to survive the cyclic nature of poverty. Sean Baker uses the dilapidated environments to vividly capture how a child can often find wonder in bleak places without failing to convey the true darkness that they symbolise. The barren fields, abandoned houses and gaudy purple motel all become settings for endless adventure through the eyes of 6-year-old Moonee but they're emblematic of how those who struggle to make ends meet are forced to live in a state of squalor because larger society doesn't care about them which makes escaping their situation extremely difficult. The wealth disparity is hammered home by Disney World looming just out of sight; the physical distance between these two areas is minuscule, but the economic and social divide is gargantuan.
What makes this story so compelling is how real everything feels, from the absence of non-diegetic music to the heavy use of actual locations to the observational directing style, and the loose narrative structure fantastically reproduces a youngsters carefree outlook. It's this direct approach that helps make the depiction of the main characters seem completely genuine; there's no attempt to hide their flaws since we understand their turbulent behaviour given the bigger picture, Moonee is too mischievious and Halley is too combative but it's always clear that their actions are a consequence of the circumstances they're trapped in which made me feel very sympathetic towards them. Equally engrossing is the portrayal of motel manager Bobby, a man who uses his stern exterior to conceal his deeply compassionate heart; he's protective of the residents in a manner that always appears humane instead of cloying.
Although Baker does an impressive job of crafting a tone which is heartfelt without coming across as contrived, massive credit has to go to the cast who are all sublime at making the emotional beats work so successfully, especially the central trio. Brooklynn Prince gives one of the most naturalistic child performances I can recall, an almost perfect balance of charming and impudent without being remotely saccharine. Her breakdown at the end is astonishingly well acted for her age. Bria Vinaite is excellent considering this was her debut, making Halley exasperating in a way that evokes empathy instead of disdain. Willem Dafoe is also outstanding here, giving a magnificently understated turn that makes Bobby's caring and considerate attitude seem totally believable. I'd happily watch a whole film just following him around doing his menial tasks, he's that likeable.
Even though I think the ending sequence is a little jarring, I enjoy the ambiguity it carries and how it is appropriately bittersweet. One last dash for the freedom of a fantasy world, seemingly the only way to escape the hardships of reality.