BEYOND THE FRINGES
Tangerine director Sean Baker goes mainstream with The Florida Project. Can he keep his edge?
GIVEN THAT HIS last film, 2015’s Tangerine, was famously shot on an iphone,
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is a major step up. Here he’s working with 35mm and — for the first time — a bona-fide movie star in Willem Dafoe. But Baker has no interest in continuing up the Hollywood ladder to $100 million blockbusters. “I’m absolutely not the type,” he laughs. “I’m not looking to make that Marvel movie.” He has a loftier goal in mind: he wants to use the creative freedom that comes with success and (relatively) bigger budgets to become the United States’ Ken Loach.
“It takes three years to make a film — that’s my average — and I see it as my responsibility [to tackle] political issues that I feel strongly about. Yet at the same time, the medium of cinema is rooted in entertainment, so there’s that goal to please audiences as well.”
Hence the laughs in his tale of six-year-old Moonee (extraordinary newcomer Brooklynn Prince), her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, who Baker found on Instagram) and the other ‘hidden homeless’ families who scrape by at the Magic Castle Suites motel near Disneyworld. Moonee is largely oblivious to her poverty, running wild with her friends and scamming tourists for ice cream money under the watchful eye of compassionate motel manager Bobby (Dafoe). Still, the spectre of eviction hovers close.
Like Loach with Kes, Baker proves remarkably adept at directing children. “I didn’t want to make the film until we found the perfect kids,” says Baker of his heroine. “It all rests on their shoulders. I was looking for the new Spanky Mcfarland, from The Little Rascals, and I really believe we found one in Brooklynn.” Baker calls his lead “one of the most wonderful actors I’ve worked with, of any age”, and marvels at the humour she brought to the film. “[In one scene] the kids are making raspberry noises under the steps, then little Brooklynn leans over and says, ‘Look, a spider! Let’s see if it farts!’ That’s her, 100 per cent.”
The kids’ joy, despite their circumstances, gives the film the same lightness that made Tangerine so thrilling. Baker repeats the bright pop vérité approach he used in that film, with glowing colours to communicate the heightened senses of childhood. “There’s a balance between social realism and entertainment that I’m interested in exploring more. A film like Get Out is a perfect example of how the two masters I’m trying to serve can be served properly, and I’m excited to continue along this route.” With The Florida Project, social justice comes with a smile. And a side order of farting spiders.
Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince as mum Halley and daughter Moonee. Below: Willem Dafoe plays goodguy Bobby.