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.

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