“Tangerine” Director Sean Baker Takes Us Beyond The Magic Kingdom

Although The Florida Project sounds like an early 2000’s political heist that would launch our country into perennial war in the Middle East motivated by the insatiable pockets of the Halliburton Corporation, it is actually a delicate portrait of a young girl living in poverty on the edge of Disney World in Orlando.

The Florida Project comes from Sean Baker, of recent renown for the 2015 iPhone-shot festival darling Tangerine. Tangerine’s micro-budget approach made waves, but just because you can make a movie on a cell phone doesn’t mean you want to. Having afforded 35mm, location permits, and Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project polishes Baker’s storytelling prowess and puts it on top-shelf display (specifically, Cannes’ Director’s fortnight).

Central to The Florida Project‘s success is the casting of 7-year-old newcomer Brooklynn Prince as the wildly mischievous Moonee. With her tiny cohort, Moonee meanders through a distinctly Floridian neighborhood diseased by the neighboring Disney World (“The Florida Project” was Walt Disney’s name for the theme park during the planning stages). Together they panhandle for ice cream, remix Rihanna songs, and imagine a “party with beer!” in an abandoned condo complex. After spitting onto a car window from a motel balcony she demonically bellows:

Original illustration by the author, Theo Schear, that reads "It was me you stupid thot!"

She comes home to The Magic Kingdom, a tacky purple motor inn feeding on tourists that intended to book rooms in the attraction nearby. Prince, bringing joy to every scene with preternatural spirit, is guaranteed to be a star.

Meanwhile, anti-typecast as the sweet and wholesome motel manager, Willem Dafoe takes a comfortable backseat to the cast of amateurs. Said Dafoe, “I’ve always aspired to be the kind of actor who when people see you on the screen they don’t think you’re an actor. Of course, after you’ve done many movies it’s hard to have people not have some associations with you, but I like to try to undermine those associations.” With slightly implausible patience, he maintains the grounds, covers the breasts of tanning seniors and fends off sexual predators who stalk the congregation of motel kids.

Original illustration by the author, Theo Schear, that depicts actress Bria Vinaite kneeling with a huge pill of Xanax.

But it’s the performance of a 24-year-old non-actor that cements truth in this film. Baker’s team invited Bria Vinaite, a Xanax-pillow-sponsored social media influencer, to audition via DM as Moonee’s single mother. “So I get this message from Sean saying he’s a director and I look at his Instagram and it is literally just pictures of dogs. It doesn’t say filmmaker or anything… it’s just dogs. Mind you, I have so many creepy people messaging me, so I’m thinking this guy’s just trying to prank me or he’s up to something weird.”

A scroll through Vinaite’s profile reveals that her character is very much true to her giggly-dancing-stoner online persona. Playing Moonee’s single mother, she dons a “can we smoke weed in here?” cap she designed and sold in real life. Thelonious Monk once said, “a genius is someone that is most like himself,” and genius her performance is.

Original illustration by the author, Theo Schear, depicting a baseball cap with the text "Can we smoke in here?" written on the front panel.

The mother and daughter shill wholesale perfume in parking lots and throw middle fingers at helicopters. The world is their playground, their oyster, their roller-coaster ride. But the brightly pigmented façade fades as the mother’s impoverished hustle comes to light. Overlooked by 7-year-old eyes, a bleaker truth recolors the film’s palette and reality spirals quickly to Baker’s final shot – a startling departure from the film’s formal boundaries – which left me audibly choking on my own spit through the silence of the credits.

Baker serves as editor on his own films, choosing to make a fine cut of one scene before jumping into the next. As each scene dictates the next, the film manifests his vision uncompromised by formula-abiding slave-to-the-script collaborators. Behind the camera was Alexis Zabé, notable for a couple Harmony Korine shorts, Carlos Reygada’s Silent Night and Post Tenebras Lux, and Pharrell’s “Happy” video. Zabé’s casual but elegant approach fits perfectly into Baker’s hand-crafted production.

Baker shows deep shades of Richard Linklater, the doyen of contemporary realism. But while Linklater is stuck in the white male psyche, Baker is able to elucidate seemingly authentic experiences of marginalized demographics. Steeped in the history of Italian neo-realism and direct cinema, Baker has adopted the term “pop verité” to describe his approach. At the same time, The Florida Project serves as an updated Little Rascals, a classic that Baker also cites.

Although The Florida Project is no masterpiece – there isn’t enough risk – it indicates the director is on his way. As Tangerine led him to a big budget, this one will propel him one step further. It’s safe to expect revelation from Sean Baker’s next film, but as he told me in an on-camera interview, he hasn’t even begun to think about what’s next: “I sent a letter to my agent the other day, I’m like – stop hounding me – and she kept pushing and pushing, and I’m like here’s the timeline: realistically the next film isn’t until 2021. And she’s like are you fucking kidding me???”


T. Anthony Schear doesn’t accept the status quo. His progressivist rebellion from the status quo substantiates his opinions. These are ideas you’ve never heard before, which make you think: Where did these thoughts come from? Are they potentially concerning?  Wiki | Portfolio