America is portrayed many ways in film, but the way Japanese audiences tend to get to see it is through the rose-tinted lens of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Director Sean Baker’s latest movie, “The Florida Project,” puts forth a different view of the country. It’s one that Japan doesn’t often get to see, yet it’s probably more familiar to them than they realize.
“I think that for a long time the entertainment industry has sugar-coated and painted things in a certain positive light — which does exist — but to ignore the other side is simply untruthful,” says Baker, 47, who consciously chose to set his film in grittier surroundings.
“The Florida Project” has received critical acclaim as a socially conscious, poignant drama that highlights the lives of the “hidden homeless,” financially unstable people and families who live in temporary housing.
Japan has its own hidden homeless problem. A survey released this year by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government showed around 4,000 people exist as netto nanmin, “refugees” that effectively live in urban internet cafes, who sought shelter in temporary accommodations between November 2016 and January 2017 because they didn’t have stable residences.
Baker’s characters don’t have an internet cafe to shelter in, instead 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) live in a motel located a short distance from Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
After losing her job as a stripper, Halley, whose tempestuous nature doesn’t keep her from being a loving mother to Moonee, struggles to make ends meet. The film follows Moonee and her friends Scooty and Jancey through the scorching Florida summer as Halley desperately tries to support the family.
Baker says that while the film depicts the innocence and imagination of youth, he still wanted to explore “that age when they’re not fully aware but they’re still being affected and slowly brought to awareness (of their surroundings).”
“I want the audience to feel one with Moonee, as if they’re participating in the summer with her, having fun and being one of her gang members,” the director says. “I wanted to give as much information to the audience as what’s given to Moonee.”
Seen through the eyes of the 6-year-old, played to perfection by the effervescent Prince, the candy-colored motels with names like Magic Castle and Futureland seem more like enchanting landmarks than depressing indicators of impoverishment.
Moonee and her friends cajole strangers on the street for money to buy ice cream, spit-bomb cars and taunt passersby with youthful glee. The contrast between the vibrant, imaginative world Moonee inhabits and the realities of her fraught home environment is powerful, particularly with Walt Disney World — an amusement park that caters to families with money — looming in the background.
Baker has examined this kind of relationship before. He and writing partner Chris Bergoch tackled it in the 2015 film “Tangerine,” which was groundbreaking for being shot only on three iPhone 5s smartphones. In it the duo captured the hardships of transgender sex workers living in close proximity to the glamour of Hollywood. So, when Baker and Bergoch made several trips to Florida, they were quick to notice that an almost identical community existed in the Sunshine State, it just had different residents.
“It was a very similar situation, the only difference being the proximity to the theme parks that sets our story apart,” Baker says. “We were actually visiting motels and interviewing residents and hotel owners there because we knew it was almost the exact same situation. It’s a nationwide problem.”
The weight of the issue lends a rawness to “The Florida Project.” Baker chose to film in an actual motel to capture the energy and everyday struggles of its inhabitants.
“It was exciting and it brought a lot to the film to interact with the community,” he says. “At the same time, it’s very sobering when a scene that’s basically right out of your movie is happening (in real life) while you’re shooting.”
The director recalls a moment when police arrived at the motel to intervene in a domestic abuse situation and remove two children and a mother from the location.
“That obviously makes an impact and it’s emotionally draining on everyone involved,” he says.
Baker hopes that “The Florida Project” will cause people to be more aware of the socio-economic conditions that affect unseen communities, and sway them to be more open-minded. For overseas audiences, that will hopefully translate into a discussion on how their countries treat the issue instead of simply seeing it as an American problem.
“Sometimes I see audiences leaving in a debate, which is really great,” Baker says. “The fact that people in the same group are seeing it in different ways is interesting and I think that’s why I make films — to spark discussion.”
If discussion is the goal then Baker has succeeded. “The Florida Project” was met with a warm reception at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and a lot of that was due to the acting of Prince, Vinaite and Willem Dafoe in the role of Bobby Hicks, the manager of the motel Moonee and Halley live in. Dafoe even snagged an Oscar nomination for his performance.
The attention has been great for Baker, who has been called the “indie director to watch.” However, Baker seems satisfied to know that audiences come out of one of his films with a measure of sympathy for the characters that are portrayed in them.
“Ultimately, I hope that those people who are harsh in their judgment, they are at least questioning how or why they judge,” he says. “That will hopefully have audiences thinking about the real Halleys out there.”
“The Florida Project” hits select cinemas nationwide on May 12. For more information, visit www.floridaproject.net.