The Florida Project is out now. Get your tickets here!
A homeless family living in a budget hotel, a transgender sex worker, an adult film star, and an illegal Chinese immigrant. What do each of these characters have in common? They’re all focal points of one of Sean Baker’s films. Baker’s most recognized film, 2015’s Tangerine, received accolades for the innovative technique of filming using solely iPhones, but the director’s compelling storytelling methods go much deeper than the surface of an Apple screen.
Sean Baker delicately walks the fine line between being intimately revealing and exploitative with his characters, acknowledging that although the decisions he makes on who to explore could risk certain scrutiny, he never hits the green light without the approval from members of the community he’s out to discover. For his latest film The Florida Project, Baker examines the everyday life of a hotel that houses families who are just a day and a dollar short of sleeping out in the streets.
The film follows one mother who is struggling to survive and take care of her 6-year-old daughter, Moonee. The director was meticulous about running the details of the legalities regarding Moonee’s care and intervention by Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DFC) to create a sense of realism and accuracy. These flawed, fearless characters are evocative, simultaneously igniting pity and reverence as they navigate hardships those of us who dished out cash for tickets and popcorn can’t begin to fathom.
You’re probably already familiar with the previously mentioned Tangerine, which follows Sin-Dee Rella, a transgender sex worker who has just finished up a month-long stint in prison. Sin-Dee Rella wakes up every day wondering who she can trust, who’s going to burn her, and whether she can scrape up enough money to do it all over again the next morning. Tangerine launched Baker into the filmmaking spotlight two years ago, and although his earlier films are much less known, they’re no less important. Each of them ventures down a similar path that few of us would be willing to follow.
In Starlet, a young blonde who earns minuscule paychecks by acting in adult films buys a thermos from a yard sale that happens to be full of cash. When she fails to return the money to Sadie, its rightful owner, Jane befriends the cranky widow and spends it on Sadie’s whims and wishes, unknowingly filling the void of a lost daughter. After all, why struggle alone when you can do it together?
One of Baker’s earliest films, 2004’s Take Out, also has a few things to say about struggling along. Take Out follows Ming Ding during an average day for the illegal Chinese immigrant, who is constantly fighting to make enough money to pay off the people who smuggled him into America. The film is an unflinching look at surviving as an illegal immigrant, asking the question of whether or not dreamers like Ming Ding can ever actually thrive here. Is Take Out a portrait of one riveting day in this man’s life, or is it just a small sample of how painstakingly difficult it is to paint every single stroke?
Everyone is striving to achieve the American Dream, but how many of us ever actually achieve it? By and large, Sean Baker’s stories aren’t composed of chapters that lead to a complete story with a fairy tale ending, complete with that rare occasion when the underdog actually makes it, rising above circumstance and living happily ever after. He subverts the contained storytelling experience by omitting the beginning and the end, focusing instead on the middle, on how we manage to wake up each day and take a step forward to an unknown finish line.
Most major world religions believe the human condition is comprised of the journeys each of us take to evolve from inherently imperfect creatures to liberation and salvation, but sometimes it’s less about being saved and more about learning to survive in the world that surrounds us. Sean Baker isn’t in the game to create characters that beat the odds and manage to finally live the dream, but he does give audiences gorgeously flawed characters who show us what it’s like to really, truly live, and that’s winning.