Sean Baker

The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker)

The Florida Project turns out to be a lot about perspective. Director Baker establishes three different perspectives–six-year-old Brooklynn Prince, her mom (Bria Vinaite), and the manager of the motel where they live (William Dafoe). The film takes place over a summer, as Prince makes new friends and loses old ones. The kids have numerous adventures, occasionally sweet, sometimes rude, sometimes dangerous, often funny. Vinaite has recently lost her job as a stripper when the movie starts, something which Baker only addresses from Prince’s perspective. Because it doesn’t seem important to Prince’s story.

And for most of the film, it isn’t. Most of Florida Project is split between Prince and company’s adventures and how much trouble they cause for Dafoe. But it’s not too much trouble because Dafoe’s really a big softy. He’s caring and compassionate and trapped in a cage of his own making. He’s trying to do what’s right.

Each of Prince’s friends has a somewhat different living situation as far as parents or guardians go, but they all live in the same motel or nearby. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch do great with getting in the exposition about how it works, living in motels (i.e. occupancy laws, dining, rent). There’s a lot of visual emphasis on the green paradise of a setting. Baker and photographer Alexis Zabe set these characters, with their often dangerous problems, against this idyllic backdrop.

It’s gorgeous but leads to another problem of perspective; do they characters acknowledge the beauty around them? For a while it seems like Dafoe might. Unfortunately, as the film enters its second half and focuses more on Vinaite and Prince together, its treatment of Dafoe changes. It’s no longer watching him–from Prince’s perspective–but giving him a scene here or there, just to keep him present. He even gets an utterly uncooked subplot involving Caleb Landry Jones. For two scenes. With no pay-off. Or even affect on Dafoe’s arc.

The second half turns out to be rife with character revelations, as Vinaite’s friendship with fellow mom Mela Murder turns out to be a bait and switch as far as plot progression expectations. It’s too bad, as Murder made Vinaite a lot less obnoxious (not in a bad way though) in her plotline. Instead, Vinaite and Prince’s plotlines pretty much join–Prince’s adventures, while more visually glorious, becoming subplot–and it’s mostly a reveal of Vinaite. Turns out by sticking with Prince, Baker was really skirting away from a lot of truth about mom Vinaite. Prince never figures it out, which then changes the narrative distance as far as she and the friends go. And it turns out Dafoe’s unreliable too.

None of it’s bad. Baker isn’t sneaky or tricky in the filmmaking. The scenes are always right on. They just maybe aren’t the right scenes for where the movie ends up going. A lack of information is built into how the movie works–it’s from a six-year-old’s perspective, sometimes including height–and the composition, the photography, the editing, and Lorne Balfe’s music captivate throughout. Baker just doesn’t mix in the the captivating and epical action well. Especially not since he has this final intellectual reveal he really could’ve worked in sooner and gotten greater effect.

Because, of course, it turns out even though the movie sticks with Prince, she’s got her own relevation offscreen things going on.

So Florida Project is lyrical until it’s epical. It does better with the lyrical because it hasn’t been doing the work to be epical. Beautiful filmmaking can only cover so much.

Lots of great acting. Dafoe’s phenomenal, even if he never gets a pay-off. Though no one gets a pay-off; maybe Vinaite. But even hers is problematic. She’s good. She’d probably be better if Baker defined the character better in the first act. Instead of having development, she has character revelation. A minor tweak of focus would’ve helped a bunch.

The kids are awesome. Prince, Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto, Aiden Malik. Rivera plays Murder’s son and is best friend #1. Cotto becomes best friend #2. Malik is sort of background. Baker knows how to direct the kids to get some amazing moments. Even when they’re just goofing off.

In the supporting roles, Murder is good but eventually undercooked. She’s not reliable either. Josie Olivo is great in a smaller part as Cotto’s grandmother and maybe the closest thing to a good role model Vinaite encounters.

The film’s a technical marvel. Interiors, exteriors, long shots, close-ups, Zabe’s photography is always perfect. Same goes for Baker’s cutting. Balfe’s score is perfect.

The Florida Project is nearly great. Instead, it’s almost great. With some exceptional performances, direction, and technical aspects.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Sean Baker; written by Baker and Chris Bergoch; director of photography, Alexis Zabe; music by Lorne Balfe; production designer, Stephonik Youth; produced by Baker, Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou; released by A24.

Starring Brooklynn Prince (Moonee), Bria Vinaite (Halley), Willem Dafoe (Bobby), Valeria Cotto (Jancey), Christopher Rivera (Scooty), Mela Murder (Ashley), Aiden Malik (Dicky), Caleb Landry Jones (Jack), Josie Olivo (Stacy).


Tangerine (2015, Sean Baker)

There’s no hope in Tangerine. It’s not a completely negative film–and it’s often quite funny–but there’s no hope. Director Baker leaves the most devastating part of the film in the viewer’s mind. The movie ends. The lives of the characters do not; Baker goes out of his way with these beautiful montages set to a various types of music to give the viewer time to consider, to anticipate, to reflect on the film’s contradiction. Baker never asks the viewer to empathize, even when a character’s sympathetic, likable.

The film is about a prostitute (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh out of jail, hunting down her cheating boyfriend slash pimp. Her quest gets her best friend (Mya Taylor) involved, but it also ties into the life of one of their customers, a cabbie.

The cabbie, played by Karren Karagulian, gets to do the most dramatic acting for the first act of Tangerine. Rodriguez is this uncontrollable force raging down the Los Angeles blocks with Taylor’s failure to contain her funny but also scary. Baker’s very careful about how he follows Rodriguez and Taylor–they’re the world, everything else is background, but dangerous background.

Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch forecast a lot of the plot but against the viewer’s anticipation; it seems too much, but then Tangerine delivers.

Amazing acting from Taylor, Rodriguez and Karagulian. Great writing; not just the scenes and the plotting, but how Baker and Bergoch so perfectly set up the ground situation.

Tangerine’s depressing, reassuring, mundane, magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Sean Baker; written by Baker and Chris Bergoch; directors of photography, Baker and Radium Cheung; produced by Baker, Karrie Cox, Marcus Cox, Darren Dean and Shih-Ching Tsou; released by Magnolia Pictures.

Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee), Mya Taylor (Alexandra), Karren Karagulian (Razmik), Mickey O’Hagan (Dinah), James Ransone (Chester), Alla Tumanian (Ashken), Luiza Nersisyan (Yeva), Arsen Grigoryan (Karo), Ian Edwards (Nash), Ana Foxx (Selena) and Clu Gulager (The Cherokee).


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