When the credits for The Florida Project strike, the audience waits. The ending is hyperactive and jarring, and the theatre rustles with surprised, somewhat indignant laughter — surely, this is not it. Surely, we are entitled to more resolution. But life does not have the neatness of traditional storytelling, and neither does The Florida Project — resolution is not guaranteed.

From director and co-writer Sean Baker (the mind behind indie darling Tangerine), The Florida Project is less of a movie and more of an intimate exploration life in Orlando’s impoverished fringes. Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite) is a young mother struggling to make ends meet for her and her six-year-old daughter, Moonee (the astounding Brooklynn Prince). Unemployable, Halley resorts to petty money-making schemes so she can afford their room at The Magic Castle. Managed by beleaguered, paternal Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel’s name might draw parallels to the nearby Magic Kingdom but it is in harsh juxtaposition to Disney’s empire.

Magic Castle residents, if they are lucky, work minimum wage jobs.

If not, they hawk cheap perfume in parking lots, steal food, or host late night guests while their children play, oblivious, in the bathtub.

We are introduced to Orlando through Mooney’s eyes, and though we may be exiled from the magic of Disney World, Mooney’s Florida is still electric with wonder. Strip malls, wetlands, and abandoned housing developments become a playground for her and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). At times, they are aggravating, foul-mouthed versions of their foul-mouthed, aggravating parents. At others, they are just children, playing, wide-eyed, teeming with vivacity.

Moonee’s perspective invites us into a technicolored landscape where adventure is not confined within Disney’s gates, but wherever you like — it is just up to you to make it. It gives us moments of pure, unadulterated laughter. It reminds us of the sweetness of ice cream devoured before it can drip onto hot asphalt.

It softens the presence of danger, though the audience is privy to just how thin the veil of childhood enchantment is.

Moonee remarks to her friends that alligators reside near where they are playing, but so does fire, pedophiles, junkies, and the desperation of Florida’s outcasts.

Perhaps most powerful is Baker’s ability to capture youth’s pervasive sense of hope, and that makes the movie even more crushing. The Florida Project taps into the country’s “hidden homeless,” illustrating a cycle of poverty and suffering of which Moonee and her friends are most likely a part. They talk like their parents, they defy authority like their parents, they destroy like their parents. We are forced to wait for them to become them.

Dafoe is the movie’s recognisable face, but Vinaite and Prince are its secret weapons. Each performance was so raw and honest, you wonder, for a moment, if you are watching the subjects of a documentary, rather than actors.

Heart-wrenching and visually stunning, The Florida Project should be necessary viewing. The film opens in cinemas 21 December.

Readers also enjoyed this review of Wonder Wheel.