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The best cult films about America’s hidden outsiders

In tribute to The Florida Project – Sean Baker’s new film about a group of kindergarteners gone bad – we look at other incredible depictions of a forgotten America

A fabulous, fucked-up ode to the Florida you don’t see advertised in brochures, The Florida Project is that rarest of things in Hollywood cinema: a great film about the American underclass. In Sean Baker’s new film, a group of kids run riot at an extended-stay motel in Orlando, abusing locals and flipping off helicopters ferrying tourists to the nearby Disney World resort. Making light work of some seriously bleak subject matter, the Tangerine director shines important light on a real-world phenomenon – the epidemic of hidden homelessness forcing hard-up families out of rental properties and into motels ill-equipped to deal with their needs.

To this end, he is aided by his adorably foul-mouthed young cast, and a popping-candy palette that gives a kids’-eye-view of this world of peeling pastel stucco, parking lots and cruelly ironic place names like Seven Dwarfs Lane and Futureland Inn (“Stay in the Future Today!”). “What we’re saying is, ‘Look, this could be happening in your own community and you might not be aware of it,’” Baker tells Dazed of the film. “It’s about taking homelessness and helping to remove the stigma of it, humanising these characters who we often don’t even think about or who are hidden.” To celebrate The Florida Project’s screening as part of the London Film Festival this week, we’re taking a look at some of the best big-screen portrayals of hidden America.

GUMMO

Part cat-whipping provocation, part-affectionate portrait of the backwoods Tennessee of his youth, Harmony Korine’s first film as director has inspired all kinds of cultural weirdness since its release in 1997, from witch house to Napoleon Dynamite and glossy fashion magazine spreads. Detractors called it poverty porn, and certainly, Gummo probes at the boundaries of good taste. But there’s an authenticity to the film’s cast of glue-huffing amateurs that makes it hard to argue with – apparently, Korine was influenced by his own dad’s documentary series on the American south, Southbound, (https://vimeo.com/17661044) screened on PBS in the early 80s. “What (folk anthologist) Harry Smith was doing with music, my dad would do with video,” said Korine of the series, distinguished by an eccentric cast of characters Korine Jr would be proud to call his own.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

David Mackenzie’s brooding modern-day western is a bank-heist thriller in which the banks are the bad guys – a perfect premise for our post-recession times, them. The story of two brothers who decide to rob a bank after their home is threatened with foreclosure, the film was written by Taylor Sheridan as part of a self-styled ‘frontier trilogy’ exploring the injustices of contemporary America, beginning with 2014’s Sicario and culminating in this year’s Wind River, directed by Sheridan himself. But it’s this film, a savage indictment of the banking crisis dressed in surly cowboy’s clothing, that stands out.

AMERICAN HONEY

Is there any film that captures what it’s like to be young, drunk and addicted to crunk right now better than American Honey? Riding shotgun with a crew of magazine sales-reps as they tour the American south, Andrea Arnold’s “road movie without a map” sides instinctively with its young cast of orphans and runaways, drinking in desolate one-mall towns and oases of affluent suburbia along the way. These are kids looking, as their favourite Rihanna song goes, for love in a hopeless place, a world without safety nets where they must consistently prove their worth or risk being left by the roadside. That American Honey makes all of this so life-affirming is testament to Arnold’s empathetic vision.

WINTER’S BONE

Few Americans get a rawer deal on screen than poor mountain communities of the midwest like Appalachia and the Ozarks, the latter providing Winter’s Bone with its grim setting. What’s surprising about Debra Granik’s gothic slice of Americana, though, is the care it takes in depicting these characters’ lives. Following the efforts of a young girl (Jennifer Lawrence, in her breakout role) to track down her drug-dealing father in a bid to save her home from repossession, the film portrays a community blighted by crystal-meth addiction, where prospects are slim and army recruitment officers can seem like your only ticket out of town.

TANGERINE

In Sean Baker’s breakout, shot with a £5 iPhone app in some of Hollywood’s more insalubrious districts, a transgender sex worker goes off in search of her cheating BF while her friend tries to keep a lid on her explosive temper. Using the same good-humoured, unsentimental approach he would later bring to The Florida Project, Baker offers a frank-and-funny look into the lives of some of society’s most vulnerable people, eliciting poignant performances from his leads, screen newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, who became the first transgender actresses to receive studio backing for a tilt at Oscars glory in 2015.