Tangerine was the first film I saw by Sean Baker. I thought it by far the best film about the trans community, not about the transition, but about the lives of trans women on the fringe who can’t afford insurance, let alone surgery. Super low production values, super high insight and heart.
The Florida Project shows a rise in the production values, and it has a star, William Dafoe, who does a good job, though I think casting him was a mistake. Why? Because he seems like an actor and all the other actors seem to actually be the characters they are playing. Without Dafoe, the film would read as more documentary than fiction. This, in fact, is Baker’s genius: he takes us so deeply inside the lives the character are living, he removes us enough from the screenplay formula, that we deepen into the most complicated of human understanding. Of desperation, of love, of ugliness, of imprinting, of danger.
Specifically, The Florida project tells the story of Moonee, a five year old girl being raised by her very young, foul-mouthed, tattoed mother, who scraped a living together by stripping, selling bulk perfume as designer, and eventually by hooking. Moonee swears, spits, lights a fire, and is smart, inventive and adventurous. Much of the movie seems like slice of life, because the accrual of events is slow and subtle until the underlying dangers of this life become difficult to watch.
Moonee’s mom, Hallee, isn’t likeable per say, but she is made utterly understandable. In Tangerine, you can’t write off the trans women as tranny hookers; in The Florida Project you can’t write off the young mom as a white trash stripper. And yet they live the fringe lives they live, barely subsisting, imperfect in their connections, and yet…connected.
Honestly, Sean Baker makes every other filmmaker this year look utterly superficial. His vision is at once brutally honest and utterly compassionate. He has something to say, and he says it with subtlety and care. Some of the shots are a little stylized, but they so effectively underscored and communicated the meaning of what he was revealing (often about the nature of childhood…any childhood), I ended up liking them…and I hate stylization for its own sake, in which the filmmaker is showing us how clever he is.
I believe what Richard Linklater said is true–if you want innovation, if you want an original vision, don’t look to Hollywood. Look to independent films.
I can’t recommend this one highly enough. I’m going to watch everything else Baker has ever done.