More than a year ago, director Sean Baker captured the sickly sweet truth about Central Florida – that, despite our status as a magical vacation destination, thousands of us are struggling to eke out a survival on poverty wages and inadequate housing in the glittery shadows of Disney World.
The opposing dualities of our existence in the metro Orlando area were portrayed in Baker's 2017 film The Florida Project through the eyes of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a mischievous 6-year-old girl who lives precariously in the lavender Magic Castle motel off Kissimmee's dilapidated Highway 192 strip with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). While Halley, an ex-stripper, figures out schemes to get cash for their $38-a-night home, Moonee delightfully annoys the only paternal figure in her life, motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), and tricks tourists into buying ice cream for her and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) with a fib about an asthma diagnosis.
Baker recorded the brilliant highs of Moonee's adventures, tearing through abandoned pastel condos and a lush emerald backyard "safari." Just as well, he represented the dark lows of homelessness and the all-too-real panic of forever goodbyes.
"It's been great to hear people have been affected to the point where they're changing their viewpoint on poverty and the way they look at the hidden homeless situation," Baker says. "When I spoke to the nonprofits we worked with, especially the Community Hope Center on Highway 192, they always said, 'The first step to eradicating homelessness is to remove the stigma attached to it.' That's what I always say this film is attempting to do, to look at it in a whole different way."
Like best-picture Oscar winner Moonlight's portrayal of Miami, the scenes, experiences and golden sunsets in The Florida Project rang true for local residents – and showed the dedication and care Baker and his team invested in getting it right. Shortly after its premiere, Baker told Orlando Weekly he hoped Floridians would embrace the film, because "I wanted to show how beautiful Florida can be and how Floridians are beautiful people."
The film premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and has since won numerous accolades for its actors and crew, including a "Best Director of the Year" award to Baker from the New York Film Critics Circle and a nomination for Dafoe in the Oscars' Best Supporting Actor category. Baker, though, feels The Florida Project's greatest reward so far has been getting child actor Christopher Rivera, who once lived in the same motels featured in the movie, a full scholarship to Rollins College.
"You could look at The Florida Project as being successful in terms of getting Willem a nomination or that we went to Cannes, but who cares?" Baker asks. "To me, the real change that's happening – that's what matters. Having an impact on Christopher's life means everything in the world."
Baker will be sharing his perspectives and opinions as part of the Winter Park Institute's speaker series at Rollins College on Wednesday, Jan. 23. Aside from focusing on The Florida Project, Baker will likely speak about some of his other notable work, such as the groundbreaking film Tangerine, a tale about transgender sex workers in Hollywood shot on three iPhones.
Currently, Baker says he's doing research for his next film, which will focus on the opioid crisis.
"We've had this 'war on drugs' that's been raging since the Nixon administration," he says. "There's been a lot of films focused on the crisis, like Beautiful Boy and Ben Is Back, but mine is going to take a different approach – it's going to be critical of the U.S. war on drugs, it's going to humanize the crisis and, hopefully like my other films, inject some humor in a very respectful way."
The independent filmmaker adds that he also recently worked with 8-year-old Brooklynn Prince to help her become one of the youngest directors of all time with her short film Colours. (She writes, stars and directs, but so far hasn't announced where it will be seen – but fans can follow the journey in her Instagram Stories, @thebrooklynnkimberly.) Baker doesn't like to give a lot of advice, but he encourages aspiring filmmakers to stop waiting for validation from the industry's gatekeepers.
"We're all in a place right now where we have the tools to do it ourselves," he says. "We should not have to wait for approval. Go ahead and make it. Shoot it on your phone. We have the tools on our desk. ... My advice is not to wait, because you'll be waiting forever."