Filmmaker Sean Baker brings to light the tragic reality of America’s “hidden homeless” in his new, widely praised film The Florida Project. With his moving, detailed storytelling, audiences quickly learn that this epidemic may be happening right in their backyards.
"I was moved and saddened, and I thought this is definitely something that I should shed light upon," Baker told Townhall.
The Florida Project focuses on the rundown Magic Castle hotel outside of Disney World, which houses several families living in poverty. One young mother and her 6-year-old daughter in particular are the center of our attention. For two hours, we see the struggles they go through on a daily basis to pay the rent or at least find a decent meal. It is heartbreaking and jarring, but by making children the stars, Baker was able tell the story in a joyful light as well.
Baker has always wanted to make a film about children. Having been inspired by the unique comedy of The Little Rascals, he was intrigued to try his hand at capturing a child's point of view.
He succeeds, with a little help from newcomer Brooklynn Prince, who plays the main character Moonee, the ringleader of her group of troublemaking friends. Baker couldn't help gushing about his little star.
"She is highly intelligent, that’s one thing," the filmmaker beamed. "And then on top of that, she’s extremely talented. She knows character, she understands the predicament her character is in, in this film. She has everything. She’s able to improvise when we needed her to, she was also able to memorize lines down to the word when we needed her to. I just really have to say she’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had."
One thing I had to know. Considering the movie is accompanied by such a profanity-laced script, how did Baker get the approval of the children's parents?
"That was a concern of ours, and we wanted to address this very early on with the parents to obviously protect the children in any way we could," he explained. "As soon as we cast the kids, as soon as we were sure we wanted those four kids, we invited the parents back into the back room of the casting agency that we were in. And we said we loved your children, it would be an honor if they would be in our film, but you do have to know one thing up front, and we have to discuss this and figure out how we are going to approach this. But the children will not only be hearing profanity, but they will be uttering profanity. So are you going to be OK with this, we have to make sure that we set an environment where the kids understand that these are words that should only be used in the scene, that these are characters saying these words, they are not to be used in their real life, and only between my saying action and cut."
Moonee appears to have gotten her potty mouth from her tattooed mom Halley, who is portrayed very convincingly by Bria Vinaite, a young lady Baker found on Instagram.
The Florida Project cast is not all new faces, however. Hollywood veteran Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the endearing hotel manager who cares deeply about his tenants despite their frequent f-bombs and inappropriate, (sometimes downright crude) behavior.
In a few scenes, we see charity groups making consistent trips to the rundown hotel to distribute food and water. Baker hopes the movie will attract more willing volunteers.
"We are hoping this happens because we really want to tell audience members who have these questions and that this is not just an issue for Orlando and Kissimmee," he noted. "There are agencies that we can point them to in the area, non-profits that provide social services to that area. However, it is a national issue, and it might be happening right under your nose. So look into it in your own community because there’s a very good chance that it’s happening there."
The Florida Project is out in theaters now.