The Magic Castle budget motel in Kissimmee, Florida, is less than 10 miles away from the Magic Kingdom — just close enough to hear, but not see, the fireworks over Disney World.

Clothes, towels and even bedsheets hang from the railings and inside the rooms. Many of the Magic Castle guests are also residents, families sharing single rooms for $38 a night.

The Florida Project

THE FLORIDA PROJECT is their story.

Though it’s a fictional drama, it often feels like a documentary. Shot at the real Magic Castle (without shutting it down), THE FLORIDA PROJECT reveals the “hidden homeless” living in the shadow of the happiest place on earth, surrounded by cheap souvenirs stores and gaudy buildings.

The “substitute shelter,” as star Willem Dafoe called it, is painted candy purple, but no part of the narrative is sugar coated. The families can’t afford permanent housing and consistently have trouble making ends-meet. The kids are either stuck in their rooms watching TV or running around the city unsupervised, hustling strangers for ice cream money or getting into mischief. 

Every resident of the motel is doing the best they can, and sometimes their best is destructive, to themselves and the rest of their family. This is especially true for the film’s focus, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley is an out-of-work stripper, who solicits wholesale perfume and sex to tourists as a means of survival, while her precocious 6-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), spends her days with her ragtag group of friends.

Motel manager Bobby (Dafoe) often ends up in the middle of the chaos, as he tries to provide a small sense of stability and structure.

Despite Halley’s frequent, profanity-filled outbursts, there is a soft side to her as a mother. She and Moonee have genuinely happy moments together, which provide breaks of sunshine in an otherwise bleak world.

You’d never guess the actors have little to no acting experience. Vinaite was cast by director, writer and editor Sean Baker off of Instagram; Prince from an open casting call.

Both stars are uncomfortably believable as their characters. Dafoe, in an exclusive interview with AMC, said Vinaite set the tone of the film, and Prince was “very smart and clever” as Moonee. To use his words, “There was no garbage on the outside. They were just present.”

The Florida Project

We’re confident we’ll continue to see them shine on the big screen — as well as, of course, the esteemed Dafoe, who’s both tough and compassionate as the film’s moral compass.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT has received rave reviews since its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and was one of the most talked-about films from the Toronto Film Festival, where we were fortunate enough to catch the screening. (If you haven’t yet, check out our TIFF recap to see a few of the event’s highpoints and other audience-favorite films.)

There’s even chatter it’s a front-runner for a best picture Oscar nomination. With a storyline and performances like these, we wouldn’t be surprised.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT opens in limited release October 6 and nationwide later this month. Don’t miss THE FLORIDA PROJECT at an AMC theatre near you. Check back for tickets.