With his latest, filmmaker Sean Baker subverts the American trailer park stereotype without veering into poverty porn
From the heartbreaking moments of Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966) to Andrea Arnold’s startling vision of young midwest runaways in American Honey (2016), cinema has had a fractured relationship with showing the masses how the underclass lives. But recently, it’s become a stylish trend to twist the medium’s political value into vapid entertainment – poverty porn, some call it – swapping out blistering social realism in favour of candy-coloured settings, foul-mouthed characters and ignorantly light-hearted plots. But what if there was a film that blended both of those ideas?
The Florida Project, the latest film from Tangerine director Sean Baker, might just have the ability to transcend that cinematic no man’s land. It tells the story of Mooney: a six-year-old girl living on the fringes of Walt Disney World in a rundown motel called Magic Castle, its flaking walls painted a sherbet shade of purple. She’s ballsy but adorable, with a carpe diem MO, meeting with her friends to plead passersby for change to buy ice cream, or causing a ruckus around town by spitting on stranger’s cars. Mooney’s mother Halley, who’s played by the spliff-toting Instagram queen and Dazed 100 finalist Bria Vinaite, has left young and impressionable Mooney to do as she pleases, turning a blind eye to her running off with friends for hours and misbehaving. Free from the stern hand of a matriarchal figure, Mooney’s living out the childhood Halley so strongly wishes she herself could have been given.
At first, it seems like a typical kid’s existence over a long, hot summer. As the story gains momentum and Baker’s lens widens, we begin to realise that the motel is almost entirely occupied by people who drift from one job to the next, struggling to get by. We’re not just watching a fizzing depiction of what it’s like to be young and free; by offering his characters to us with complex, gut-wrenching stories of societal struggle while still gracing them with humour and heart, we’re subtly being schooled in how to react appropriately to America’s mistreated and overlooked underclass.
It’s Sean’s humanisation of so-called American white trash that has left so many critics awestruck by his Tangerine follow-up. We’ve seen films of this ilk before, but unlike The Florida Project, they struggle to hit all of the important markers for social change that this film does with ease. In Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997), the audience is beguiled by a boy eating spaghetti in the bathtub and a set of sisters shaving off their eyebrows in a pact-like manner; a strange reality for some to understand, and so Korine’s iconic lens turns it into a voyeuristic, semi-sexy freak show. 19 years later, and Andrea Arnold’s treatment of her young, high and lost magazine-selling kids in American Honey was nowhere near as perverse, but her story struggles to give her interesting, yet flawed characters the resolution and clarity they so desperately deserve.
These portraits are gratifying to watch, but don’t offer much insight into the lives of the often penniless and broken characters they’re depicting. Although rooted in the idea of escapism and breaking out, The Florida Project is based on something that’s happening in the real world. All along Route 192, a road that brushes up against “The Happiest Place on Earth”, The Florida Project’s characters are very much the normality: studies by the US Department of Education have shown that over 2,000 school kids in Florida have grown up, like Mooney, living in hotels rather than a steady home.
Sean Baker is acutely aware that the glamour of Cannes Film Festival (where the film premiered) could have easily overshadowed the important message at the heart of The Florida Project, but he seems hell-bent on making sure that doesn’t happen. Instead, he says he wants to partner up with his US distributor A24 (the team that brought American moviegoers Moonlight and Spring Breakers) to help support non-profit organisations based around where the film is set. “We want to give back,” he tells me. “This is an independent film and so we’ve got no money left over. But hopefully, if this film makes some (profit), A24 could help us with a campaign to raise more awareness. That would be amazing.”
The Florida Project may look foul-mouthed and facetious upon first inspection, but it’s got much more in common with the politically-fuelled work of Ken Loach than it does with Harmony Korine’s lurid and provocative style of underclass voyeurism. It’s no surprise, then, that the former inspired so much of Baker’s careful crafting of character. His repositioning of these motel-dwelling families helps the audience perceive a section of society that American cinema has so often exploited in a new and more progressive light. “I’ve seen a lot of social realist cinema,” Sean tells me, listing off a long list of names of icons of the genre, including Loach, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke. “Without those masterpieces, we wouldn’t be here”.
“Even though I don’t feel like they became examples of poverty porn, perhaps it did become a bit too much about their plight” – Sean Baker
Is that old notion of characters framed within an ill-treated “poverty porn” context something that irked him, or had he actively tried to steer clear of it? “I made a couple of films that had humour, but the style was very cinema vérité,” he says. “Even though I don’t feel like they became examples of poverty porn, perhaps it did become a bit too much about their plight. We didn’t sanctify our characters, but I’ve seen others that do, and as soon as you do that, it becomes condescending and backfires. It becomes a melodramatic Hallmark movie, and that’s exactly what we didn’t want to do.”
Sean’s critical analysis of his own work could, in comparison, make the words of some of his peers feel much more frivolous and less aligned with the people that they’re purveying. In an interview with Indiewire, Harmony Korine argued that he’s not a boundary crosser with the way he frames his characters, calling their portrayal “justified and beautiful,” then posing the question: “Why wouldn’t you put these people in? They should be celebrated. Fuck it, life is too short.” But Korine’s definition of celebration feels like a self-imposed synonym for inclusion, and as America continues to be a divisive nation politically, surely it’s time for us to understand that a fair and effective representation of its people on screen can make a world of difference, too?
Thankfully, Baker is an in touch and contemporary filmmaker with a distinct style that enchants us all – a digestible brand of important political storytelling. Baker’s films deal with vital, but weighty themes like sex work (Starlet) and trans issues (Tangerine), in a way that makes them feel less like lectures and more like rich, pop cultural trips. With The Florida Project, his love of eye-popping primary colours, whip-smart women and anti-didactic dialogue might just be able to teach a huge demographic about an issue that desperately needs addressing. “I feel like it works because we’re using a package of entertainment to capture the attention of a wider audience,” he explains. “The treatment is poppier than anything you would find in a British social realist film. It’s hopefully attracting people, then asking them to do more; it’s inviting […] In the end,” he adds, “my hope is that the audience feel obliged to do some homework.”
And just as he promises, those pop culture references are still there. In one scene, a fight breaks out in the parking lot of Magic Castle, while Halley looks on from her balcony, bellowing “World Staaar!” I ask Sean if he frequents the famed online trash dump of fight videos and viral memes in the making. “If I’m co-ordinating a fight scene I’ll watch it! Or to learn some new slang,” he says without an ounce of auteur-ish shame. Similarly, I wondered if he knew what a ‘thot’ was before six-year-old Mooney uses it to deal a sick burn to a stranger. His hip, millennial facade fades a little: “I had to ask about that one!” he admits. “ I needed some current slang and somebody dropped it, so it went in the script!”
It may seem like a fickle thing to mention, but it’s important that filmmakers realise their influence and learn to be as in-tune with the most impressionable and impactful generation. Without knowledge of how to help young people understand the lives of those around them, we risk becoming fearful of those who need our help the most. The Florida Project has such an important story to tell about those we thought we knew, but don’t. Under Sean Baker’s direction, we’re all bound to benefit from his generation-breaking wisdom.