Sean Baker and 'The Florida Project'

JANUARY 13 ― The excitement that comes with discovery is one of the great joys of my never-ending hunger for watching films old and new.

That realisation that you’re in the presence of a great film, especially when you chance upon it without much expectation, is one special little feeling that’s just as hard to describe as it is to beat.

And that further realisation, once you’ve slowly waded through a previously unexplored (by you, that is) director’s filmography, that you’re now safe in the steady hands of a great film-maker is an even better feeling.

It gets even better when someone you’ve championed as a future great fulfills that potential, and blossoms into a seriously special film-maker right before your very eyes with every new film.

Because I’ve always loved making lists and recommendations, I’ve had that happen to me countless times, especially in the last few years when my faves like the Safdie brothers, Alex Ross Perry, Maren Ade, Kelly Reichardt, Mike Flanagan, Joel Potrykus, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have grown in stature and importance in the world of cinema.

Now that we’re right smack in the middle of Oscar season I’m hoping another old favourite of mine will finally get his day in the sun this year.

His name is Sean Baker, and his latest film, The Florida Project. I found lots of things to love in his early no-budget films Take Out and Prince Of Broadway, but finally fell deeply in love with his way of seeing the world with his film Starlet, which was Number 1 in my favourite films of 2013 list here, placing higher than critics’ favourites like Tabu, Post Tenebras Lux and even Neighbouring Sounds.

Two years later his next film Tangerine (famously shot on an iPhone 5s) was an honourable mention in my favourite films of 2015 list, and if I’d seen The Florida Project in 2017, it would surely have been on my 2017 list as well.

As well reviewed and high profile as Tangerine was, most probably thanks to the fact that it was shot on an iPhone 5s, I didn’t think that it was a smooth expansion of Baker’s film-making style, which previously had always been within the neo-realist register.

Sure, like his previous films, Tangerine retains an interest in the marginalised and overlooked in America, and even had non-professionals cast in the lead roles like his previous films.

But what Tangerine also had is a proper plot, and huge doses of comedy, which sometimes didn’t blend as seamlessly with Baker’s style as I’d hoped.

That resolve to probably try to reach out to more people through the more accessible route of comedy is again repeated here in The Florida Project, as the viewers are taken on an almost The Little Rascals or Our Gang-like ride through the many adventures that the film’s lead character Moonee (an astonishing performance by child actress Brooklynn Prince) has with either her group of friends or her young mother Halley (the really spunky non-professional Bria Vinaite, who was cast because Baker found her Instagram account).

The big difference here is that this time Baker’s blend of neo-realism, slow cinema and comic hi-jinks works remarkably well.

Everything works so well here that even a big name actor like Willem Defoe just blends in so, so naturally with the cast of non-professionals.

This is still, comfortably, a typical Sean Baker story, which means that it’ll focus on an overlooked and possibly downtrodden part of America (this time around it’s about the hidden world of “motel kids”, where families only have enough to be able to afford weekly rent in run-down motels, probably the last desperate step before homelessness).

But it’s also way different and clearly a step up in the food chain in that it has a much bigger budget (reportedly a few million US dollars when all of his previous films combined would still cost less than US$500,000, RM1.9 million) and is even shot on 35mm film by cinematographer Alexis Zabe (who shot Carlos Reygadas’ great beauties Silent Light and Post Tenebras Lux).

But by telling it through the eyes of the kids (it even seemed like there’s not a single shot in the film that’s not shot from the eye level of a kid), Baker gives himself licence to have lots of naughty fun with them, and to imbue the mundane and gaudy setting with the kind of beauty that only a child’s eye can see.

In short, this is all his previous films ― the hidden worlds of Take Out and Prince Of Broadway, the sunlit beauty of Starlet, the raucous comedy of Tangerine ― rolled into one sweet, irresistible and ultimately powerfully emotional package.

Set within what seems like a summer in one of the many run-down motels in areas that surround the more magical and prosperous Disneyland, there’s fun to be had in Moonee and gang’s many little adventures, but there’s also danger in the precarious financial situation of their families, the risk that comes with the happily reckless way that Halley and Moonee sometimes go about living their lives, and potential heartbreak when you realise that they barely have even the semblance of a safety net.

It looks like it's going to be a very interesting Oscar race, and I’ve already seen some of the potential contenders. I have a hunch that this could be a lot of people’s quiet and sentimental favourite, a bit like last year’s Moonlight.

I’d go for at least a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Brooklynn Prince and maybe one for Defoe too, if not some other nominations in major categories like Best Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.

Will it happen? We’ll have to wait and see.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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