There’s a moment in The Florida Project when six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) takes her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) to an idyllic refuge from the seamy motels, waffle houses and gun outlets that typically surround them. They sit on a fallen willow. “You know why this is my favorite tree?” Moonee asks Jancey. “‘Cause it’s tipped over but still growing.”
It’s one of many quiet knockout lines in the new film from director Sean Baker, who co-wrote The Florida Project (in limited release October 6) with Chris Bergoch. The movie, which became the most sought-after American film at Cannes when it premiered there in May, follows a cast of broke Americans living in what were built decades ago to be middle-class lodgings on Disney World’s periphery. They’re now rife with prostitution and child services visits, Brazilian honeymooners screeching about the “gypsy camp” they’ve mistakenly booked and itinerants barely treading water.
The Florida Project is Baker’s latest exploration of dispossessed hustlers living on the fringes of synthetic dream industries. But it’s his first film to examine such fantasy lands (Canal Street knockoff emporiums, the San Fernando Valley porn complex, Hollywood) through the eyes of children already prone to fantasy, in this case as a vital means of escape. It cements his reputation—after 2015’s Tangerine, which he famously shot entirely on an iPhone—as one of America’s most empathic and unorthodox directors, two qualities that can seem in short supply these days.
“I see these people who live in the shadows of our entertainment and of the entertainment industries, plural,” Baker told me. “Even more generally, the people in the shadows of materialism, or luxury. I see these people in 21st century capitalist society, the people who aren’t benefitting. They’re left behind and exploited.”
Baker spent over a decade in the shadows of the movie industry, but seems unlikely to return there. The Florida Project left large portions of festival audiences in a state of wet-cheeked emotional dishevelment and has earned gushing endorsements from celebrities as diverse as Drake and Patton Oswalt. Professional Oscar obsessives who subsist on little but awards chatter throughout the year consider The Florida Project’s Willem Dafoe a near lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination and the film a serious Best Picture contender.
Baker, 46, grew up in New Jersey and in 1998 graduated from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. His first feature, 2000’s Four Letter Words, navigated suburban, post-collegiate terrain familiar to the director. Produced for $80,000, it remained until The Florida Project the only film Baker has shot on film, in this case 35mm short ends. The director then shifted gears to underclass subcultures.
His Russian dolls of disenfranchisement include 2004’s Take Out, about an immigrant Chinese delivery man’s bicycle race against the clock to make good on an overdue trafficking debt, and 2008’s Prince of Broadway, which burrowed into the life of a counterfeit bag hawker as he juggled the Canal Street hustle with far-flung outer borough domestic life thrown into chaos by the arrival of a previously unknown toddler son.
For 2012’s Starlet, a film following Valley strivers working in the local porn industry, Baker had a $250,000 budget that helped finesse his aesthetic. The movie, about the improbable friendship between a young porn star (Dree Hemingway) and reclusive octogenarian (Besedka Johnson), sustained a lucid dream state suffused with Los Angeles sunlight. That sunlight turned vivid and menacing in Tangerine, about a pair of black, transgender hookers on the starkly unglamorous streets of Hollywood.
The film only came about after the collapse of a project about Russian immigrants in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. “Out of frustration I remembered that [indie heavyweights Mark and Jay Duplass] had offered me a certain amount of money to make a microbudget film for them, because they liked Prince of Broadway a lot. So, I turned to them. But it was sort of a last, desperate move just to make a film. I didn’t really shop Tangerine around. When I couldn’t get any traction [on the Brighton Beach project], I told Mark, ‘OK, I guess I’ll make Tangerine.”
Tangerine’s aesthetic blend of confrontational, on-the-fly cinema vérité and saturated, almost psychedelic color palettes resulted in a realism assured enough to remind viewers it wasn’t real and an acid-soaked valentine to what film festival programmer Anderson Le described as a “radioactive L.A.” That, combined with its topicality and barebones technological achievement (forged of course by budget restraints) made the film a breakthrough for Baker and enabled him to make The Florida Project with both an established movie star like Dafoe and, with one bracing exception, a camera that doesn’t also receive text messages.
Dafoe plays Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle, one of many encampments lining Route 92. He’s also the castle’s catcher in the rye, tending to its loosely supervised children as their parents clean dishes and turn tricks. A craggy wariness shades Bobby’s tenderness (he is, after all, a Willem Dafoe character) and that toughness prevails in his confrontations with adults including a pedophile and an angry john who, as the film progresses, invade the tenuous, busted sanctuary he’s created. He quarrels with Moonee’s mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite) as her financial desperation spurs increasing maternal recklessness. Baker never disparages or scolds Halley, who between lapses in judgment arranges an impromptu birthday party for Jancey illuminated by fireworks from the close, but faraway Magic Kingdom and bristles at even perceived slights against her daughter.
Moonee is the film’s center. She’s rambunctious and perceptive, a troublemaker with a fresh mouth who likes spitting on cars and may have a penchant for arson. She’s in many ways more mature than Halley, who only seems to leave the Magic Castle to party and unsuccessfully apply for stripping jobs. Moonee explores what could charitably be called a neighborhood, a paved strip of honkey-tonk ice cream stands and stores hawking discounted Epcot tchotchkes. She can “always tell when adults are about to cry,” an incisiveness that sets her apart from the other kids and perhaps explains why she instills her escapist fantasy worlds in them; like Bobby, she’s a protector.
What’s exceptional about The Florida Project is that it sustains a child’s-eye perspective even in grisly adults moments. It’s through the kids that the audience perceives a john wandering into a bathroom and being shocked by the presence of the hooker’s daughter. A quick, brutal fistfight is filmed from behind the head of the boy whose mom is getting pummeled. Finally, as Halley’s transgressions trigger a tense climax, two of the kids escape the adult world only to seek shelter in a child’s dream constructed on canny adult artifice.
Baker was inspired to turn his focus on children by more innocent material. “I’ve been very influenced by Hal Roach and The Little Rascals throughout my entire career,” he said. “And this film became a tribute, a present-day Little Rascals.” He was also ““intrigued by this world because there was this juxtaposition of kids growing up in cheap hotels and the ‘happiest place on earth’ for children next door.”
He didn’t initially intend to frame the movie almost exclusively through the kids’ eyes. “While we were editing it we realized that even though we’d shot scenes that were more adult-oriented, they pulled you out of the movie. It came to be about the audience members being part of the gang of friends.”
Prince’s performance as the alternately brave and scared and, finally, devastated Moonee make her a charismatic friend and protagonist. Baker chose four extroverted actors as the lead children characters and said they showed no nervousness working with Dafoe. The actor was “very patient and very kind, posing for selfies between every take,” he said. Plus, actor Christopher Rivers “was excited to work with the Green Goblin.” Vinaite, who in this film looks like Elisabeth Moss at the end of a two-week bender and regrettable tattoo parlor visit, was perhaps more intimidated, but Baker learned after the shoot that Dafoe offered her frequent, quiet encouragement.
As warm and collegial as the cast and crew were, Baker still laughingly compared The Florida Project’s production to Apocalypse Now’s, thanks in part to complications from the Mouse House, which is notoriously averse to outsider portrayals of the theme park and resort. The director had a bigger budget to work with, but the indie predilection for chaos seems hardwired into him, as does an attraction to flawed, struggling characters and hyper local narratives that may be tougher than ever to finance and distribute.
Before he started production on The Florida Project, he told me “I’ve been stuck so long that now I’m OK with it. I think I’m my own worst enemy,” he said when discussing the movie’s premise. He wants budgets that break the seven-figure ceiling. Anything less, he said, often leads to a “forced grittiness.”
Yet a Sean Baker entry in the Jurassic World or Star Wars saga is unlikely. “I don’t have a family,” Baker said. “I’m not planning one. I don’t have to support anyone but me and my dog. I’m not looking to get rich. I would like to make sure I’m not homeless. But there are a lot more subjects I’d like to explore and I hope the audiences are there for them.”