A Sean Baker Study Through “The Florida Project”

By Tessa Brook Bahoosh

Long a fan of director Sean Baker, the existence of The Florida Project took me by surprise. I wasn’t surprised to love it, or to find it exquisitely intimate and compassionate, but it is a true mental shift to accept we live in a world in which Sean Baker films have a budget. Baker has spent most of his career making films on a shoestring, which he then manages to pull a mile. In terms of making the absolute most of what he has been given, The Florida Project is no exception. It’s a beautiful film that deals in contradictions: quiet and loud, brassy and sensitive, painful and lovely to watch. Baker is already well practiced in toeing the line between drama and comedy, as demonstrated through his previous films, particularly 2015’s Tangerine. Instead of erecting humor and melancholy as two separate poles which one may oscillate between, Baker finds the comedic within the dramatic, compromising neither. Thus, he provides a unique illustration of how films can engage with overlapping emotions that are conventionally considered contradictory, and ultimately produce deeply resonant and truthful stories.

While The Florida Project is a noteworthy film from a director who is still gaining notoriety, it is by no means a breakout feature. Baker has consistently refined and developed his craft through his directorial career, beginning with small independent films like Take Out (2004) and Prince of Broadway (2008), and reliably improving up through his most well-known film, Tangerine. Baker himself may finally be becoming a household name, but his approach to the collaborative nature of filmmaking is distinct, and culturally thoughtful. Mindful of the potential for exploitation when representing persecuted communities, Baker commonly seeks partnership with members of these communities, regardless of whether these individuals have been given the chance to pursue film previously. This emphasis on positive collaboration is part of how Baker shifts to an insider’s perspective, immersing the audience in the world he has captured.

Many critics have a particular enthusiasm toward Brooklynn Prince’s performance as 6-year-old Moonnee, who lives in an extended stay motel with her impoverished, hustling, deeply challenged mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Baker subverted casting conventions in his determination to find the right leads; he met young actors in Targets and hotels, and cast Vinaite after discovering her Instagram presence. Although Vinaite and Prince are joined by the well-established Willem Dafoe, the mother-daughter story is the emotional core, and widening the casting net to seek out non-professionals allows for a rare accessibility. By reducing the number of big Hollywood names, Baker also reduces the audience’s chances of entering the film with immediate assumptions, armed to dismiss.

Beyond casting decisions, Baker’s bent toward narrative immersion is consistent. He is deeply invested in the specificities of location, and has asserted that many of his films are inspired foremost by a sense of place. This doesn’t just mean a state or city; Baker focuses even more closely, examining a certain street, or a corner, or a building. In Tangerine, a real (although now shuttered) Los Angeles doughnut shop serves as crux of the action, and in The Florida Project, we are limited to the geography traveled by a 6-year-old. We see the same places again and again: the motel where Halley and Moonnee live; the ice cream shop where Moonnee and her friends ask strangers for money to share a cone; the bathtub that shelters Moonnee while her mother engages in sex work on the other side of the door. There is no getting away from the landscape, and as it is built into every moment, the landscape becomes inspiration and justification, rather than mere limitation. Every aspect of Halley’s life is informed by the environment she occupies; her means of earning money (hustling, theft, and furtive prostitution), the amount of objects she owns (only that which can be moved in a pinch), the food she eats (lots of waffles stolen from the diner where her friend works as a waitress); what she does for fun (going out and smoking by the pool). Perhaps a character similar to Halley could live in another city, state, or country, but in her specifics she can only exist as a resident of the Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida.

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Baker’s films do not represent universal stories (nor do I think they should). He works in the specific and personal, but goes deep within these stories so that they can be told from the inside out. They avoid the common narrative of identity-as-obstacle. The protagonists of The Florida Project don’t lead easy lives, but they are the only lives they have, and they are entrenched––entrenched in their geography, their culture, their relationships, themselves. Their pain is acknowledged, but it exists simultaneously with joy and play. Halley is young, loving, naive, and irresponsible, and and we must see all these parts of her if we wish to see her at all. Instead of making one aspect of her identity the focal point she must overcome, Baker allows Halley (and every character) to demonstrate her understanding of herself and her circumstances through decisions and presentation. This approach makes it possible to feel the weight of reality, regardless of the particulars of the story, erasing the assumption that socially disillusioned individuals can only feature into dramas or exploitation films.

The Florida Project is a tremendous realization of a filmmaker’s instinct to prioritize the people it is depicting. Baker says, “I didn’t want to make a ‘Let’s laugh at Florida’ movie. I wanted Floridians to love this film.” There are moments of deep laughter in the film, but they are not at its subjects expense.  I can easily imagine this movie as it would have been, were it headed by a less empathetic director. Too frequently, contemporary film exploits perceived otherness to unify the audience in shock, outrage, pity, or disdain. But Baker undertakes the much more difficult task of sinking into these stories, approaching them with both emotional and filmic integrity. Through adjustments of the filmic language, along with a deep understanding of psychology and motivation, Baker avoids creating characters as passive receptacles of scorn or pleasure, and instead works to close the gap between their stories and the audience members so eager to consume them.

Tessa Brook Bahoosh earned a dual degree in Screen Studies and Comparative Literature from Clark University. Since then, she has worked in a variety of arts-related environments, but always returns to her greatest passion of watching horror movies and subjecting her loved ones to essay-length rants about her opinions on the hierarchy of cinematic monsters. Through her writing, she aims for a more productive outlet.

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