Amid the superhero spectacles and star-studded dramas that command daily media headlines, writer-director Sean Baker has carved out a niche for the overlooked and the unwanted.
With his breakout film, “Tangerine” (2015), Baker’s compassionate and honest eye was put on display. The film follows the story of two transgender prostitutes trying to make a living in Hollywood, and critics and audiences alike praised its authenticity and empathy. Baker’s follow-up film, “The Florida Project,” has solidified the filmmaker as a master of tragic realism and a voice for those whom Hollywood ignores.
Following the everyday activities of young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), her 6-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), and their landlord, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), “The Florida Project” explores the lives of the “hidden homeless” in Orlando — a community of people who are barely able to pay their monthly motel rent to stay off the streets.
Halley and Moonee live in a bright pink motel in Orlando, just outside Disney World. Knock-off theme park outlet stores line Route 192, the highway off which the motel stands. It’s summer, and the children at the motel run wild, trying to make the most of their time off school — much to the dismay of Bobby. He plays the role of a parent to those he houses in his motel, cracking down on their mistakes with the best intentions at heart. Moonee and her friends spend their days exploring the motel property alone, and at night she and her mom watch the distant fireworks above Cinderella’s castle, a painful reminder of what they don’t have.
The film is another achingly real human story from Baker, and The PHOENIX sat down with the writer-director to discuss his latest work.
Baker said when his screenwriting partner, Chris Bergoch, pitched the idea for the film, he was unaware such a community existed.
“I didn’t know there was a term, ‘the hidden homeless,’” Baker said. “These are technically homeless children living right outside the [Disney] parks.”
To learn more about the reality behind their film, Baker and Bergoch reached out to various landlords of these communities around the Orlando area. Baker was surprised by the response.
“They were open and honest because they wanted their stories told,” he said.
One landlord in particular struck Baker and Bergoch with his ability to balance compassion and professionalism under his circumstances.
“He had to keep his distance, but I could see it in his eyes — he cared,” Baker said. “He was struggling with this. Everyday he knew he might have to evict a family, and that family would be going literally onto the street, onto Route 192. He was the one who really inspired the Bobby character.”
Willem Dafoe embodies this melancholy love for his tenants in one of the best performances of his career. Bobby is a genuine, honest and understanding man trying to give his troubled residents the best life he can, and he emerges as the heart and soul of “The Florida Project.”
Despite delivering an Oscar-worthy performance, Dafoe never steals the show away from the real star of the film, 6-year-old Brooklynn Prince. Her character’s sassy attitude, dirty mouth and adult mannerisms clash hilariously with her childlike sense of fun. To Baker, she’s a superstar in the making.
“It might sound crazy to ask a 6-year-old to improvise, but Brooklynn had the chops,” Baker said. “She’s an incredible little actor. I thought I was going to have to manipulate her performance with editing, but I was able to hold onto long takes with her. And she held her own with Willem [Dafoe]. It’s crazy.”
Baker went with another unknown to cast alongside Prince, Bria Vinaite. He discovered her on Instagram and had a feeling that she’d fit the role.
“We were [reaching] out to every A-list star from 20 [years old] to 24 [years old] you could think of, but we just kept going back to [Vinaite’s] Instagram,” Baker said.
Once Vinaite flew out to Orlando to meet Prince, Baker knew their chemistry was something he couldn’t pass up.
“I told her, ‘I don’t want a maternal relationship — imagine a sibling relationship. Just be her sister,’” Baker said. “Within five minutes, they were singing pop songs and little Brooklynn was sitting on Bria’s lap. I sent a video of it to my financers and said, ‘This will work, trust me.’”
The mother-daughter relationship between Halley and Moonee is fascinating, with neither one being fully mature or innocent. Both are striving to stay young, ignore the harsh realities of their environment and live in spite of them.
“The Florida Project” is a beautifully human story that captures the innocence of childhood amid the turbulence of crushing adult responsibilities. Everyone in the film is searching for the best life they can pull from the rubble of what they have. Despite an ending that may divide some audiences, “The Florida Project” could enter the Oscars race after hitting theaters Oct. 6.