Friday, 2 November 2018

Embrace: A Sean Baker Festival

Tsou Shih-Ching and Sean Baker shooting Take Out on location

For many people experiencing them for the first time, Sean Baker's films will feel like invitations to places they wouldn't usually go, to hang out with people whom they probably would have never met, to observe things they probably would have never considered doing. And in accepting these invitations, they will get swept up in some of the most hilarious, harrowing, surprising adventures they've ever encountered. For many others, though, Baker's films might inspire strong feelings of recognition, perhaps even kinship, from the fresh and sympathetic treatments given to the stuff of their lives - lives lived in the peripheries of the mainstream, caught in ongoing struggles for security and survival through jobs that are tough, risky, unconventional, and sometimes not entirely safe nor exactly legal. These kinds of stories are rarely allotted the attention, honesty, and respect they fully deserve in popular culture or public life, for the most part reduced to stereotypes, background extras, minor subplots, non-entities. Not for Baker, a graduate of New York University's film studies program who, looking beyond his feature film debut, Four Letter Words (2000), "a study of the post-adolescent male psyche," and his role as co-creator of the hit comedy show Greg the Bunny, has made it an objective of his to defy such tired and damaging images through his own refreshingly in-depth, character-driven work. As these films reveal the hard facts of life on the margins with a journalist's eye for detail and a dramatist's knack for bold storytelling, they also thrive on the currents of color, humor, and spirit that make such lives bearable, recasting the people living them in a new light of dignity. With terrific nimbleness, sensitivity, unshakable faith in his actors, a sharp sense of humor, and a firm command of cinematic technique, Baker has steadily become one of the most inspiring filmmakers at work today, developing his own distinctive, fiery brand of humanism that comes through strong, though in different registers, across each of his tales of work and play on the edge.

Yu Jeng-Hua and Charles Jang in Take Out

The most indelible image in Sean Baker and Tsou Shih-Ching's Take Out (2004) is that of the film's hero, an illegal immigrant from China named Ming Ding (Charles Jang), riding his bicycle through the rainy streets of Upper Manhattan, cartons of food dangling from his handlebars in a plastic bag. This is mostly how we see him, pedaling through countless intersections and avenues, a flimsy black windbreaker and blue denim cap constituting his only protection against the elements. When he isn't in this precarious in-between state of bike-bound transit, he is either delivering his goods to waiting customers in their doorways or back in the tiny Chinese take out restaurant where he is employed, either catching a moment of precious rest or on his way out again with a fresh food delivery to a new address. We see enough of this life to clearly understand how tough this job is on a regular basis, but on the particular day Take Out's story takes place, Mimg's situation is even more dire than usual, made so by the two thugs who visited his crowded shared apartment earlier that morning, dragging him out of bed and roughing him up with a crushing ultimatum on their lips: either he pays $800 that very night to settle the outstanding smuggling debt he incurred to get to America, or else the debt will be doubled. Already struggling to make money to support both himself and his wife and child back in China, Ming has little choice but to try to raise the demanded sum by that evening. He goes to see an acquaintance at her workplace who helps him with $500, but the rest is up to Ming himself, who resolves to make the remaining amount from the tips earned from his deliveries. To achieve this daunting task, he takes the suggestion his friend and co-worker Young (Yu Jeng-Hua) makes and bravely decides to try and deliver as many of the day's orders as he can. Thus begins Ming's Sisyphean cycle of bike travel, exchanges in apartment building corridors, and brief stops back at the restaurant, where his co-workers call out both teasing remarks and words of support while at other points sharing the hardships and challenges they have faced on their own journeys from the homes and families they left behind in Asia to the cramped, labor-intensive existence they now all share in this big American city.

Given the generous amount of screen time devoted to Ming perched atop his bike seat, weaving past yellow cabs, rumbling trucks, and passing onlookers, it's not so surprising that many critics have cited Vittorio De Sica and his landmark classic of Italian neorealism, Bicycle Thieves (1948), in their analyses of Take Out, which adopts De Sica's famous strategies of using inexperienced actors and observational street sequences for its own portrait of working class life. There are even a few moments in their film when Baker and Tsou, a Taipei-born filmmaker who met Baker in an Avid editing class at New York City's New School and has been working with him ever since, teasingly linger on Ming as he locks up his bike, scaring us with the real possibility that it may get stolen - for like Bicycle Thieves' Ricci, Ming absolutely depends on his bicycle to make a living for himself and his family (so much riding on mere bones and beams and sheer willpower), and to lose it would mean sure disaster. De Sica and his neorealist brethren are just some of the filmmakers who have been mentioned in relation to Baker and the films to his name from Take Out on, each one situated in a different hidden, little-explore corner of America's socioeconomic ecosystem. Baker has frequently acknowledged the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach as especially rich sources of guidance and inspiration for his further ventures into social realism, on other occasions voicing his admiration for such contemporary directors as Lars von Trier (Baker and Tsou first bonded over their shared fascination with the Dogme 95 movement), Ulrich Seidl, Ruben Östlund, and Lee Chang-Dong. But Baker has absorbed the wisdom and daring of these key artists only to better shape an original vein of cinema of his own, in a form wholly bound to its subjects, dedicated to people and the simple, essential stuff of their lives, the ways they keep going, and the reasons why.

The inherently independent nature of Take Out's production - a budget of just $3000, with no insurance or location permits and a crew of two shooting on standard definition video in actual city locations - all but guaranteed the strong sense of closeness to the subjects that Baker sought and achieved with this film and would continue to strive for in increasingly creative ways. For Take Out, Baker and Tsou both shouldered the duties of producing, writing, directing, editing, and recording sound while Baker wielded the camera, shooting out in the streets and in an actual New York take out restaurant, Zhong-Hua (located near Central Park on the Upper West Side), during business hours. Ingeniously, the filmmakers asked that the staff wear clothing identical to the actors' outfits so that shooting could continue when business picked up, with the workers standing in for the performers on-camera when required. The film vividly captures the bustle and energy of the tiny establishment while immersing the viewer in the many tasks and details that make up a typical work day in such a place: the opening, lighting, filling, cleaning, and food prep duties the workers throw themselves into in the morning; the colorful variety of vegetables, meat, fish, noodles, and rice that gets cooked up on the hot stove top; the tossing of hot sauce packets, napkins, menus, and plastic cutlery into the white plastic bags carrying the outgoing orders; the counting of bills and coins and exchanges of currency, food packages, and banter at the front counter where the boss of it all, Big Sister (Lee Wang-Thye), works the phone, handles the customers, and keeps everything running smoothly. As the day goes on and Ming's stamina begins to falter, Young, the laid-back joker of the bunch, tries to reassure his friend and advises him to smile at his customers and say "Thank you very much" to them in English, as that will earn him more tips. Meanwhile, Wei (Justin Wan), who makes all the restaurant's food with Ma (Jeff Huang) in the hot, cramped little kitchen, notices the bruises on Ming's body and worryingly inquires about his stressful predicament, his genuine concern, no-nonsense responsibility, and sharp-eyed vigilance all amounting to a selfless chivalry that will later be echoed by Willem Dafoe's Bobby in The Florida Project (2017).

When all the employees eat together on their lunch break, they exchange accounts of the various obstacles they and others they know have faced in their efforts to come to America to live and work: how much debt they still have and how much longer it will take them to pay it off, the added difficulties brought about by 9/11 (Ming's co-workers are impressed that he managed to arrive after the pivotal event, and that he passed through Canada to get there), the processes of applying for asylum status and awaiting trial dates. In one telling moment, Ming confesses to Young that he wishes he had never come to America, while later on, he unfolds a picture of his wife and son, who was born after Ming's departure, and studies it with palpable sadness and longing. It is undoubtedly a rough life Ming and his friends lead, working towards the seemingly impossible goals of paying off their debts and reuniting with their families while constantly feeling alienated and shut out by the world around them (a sensation driven home by the many doorway meetings between Ming and his customers, some friendlier than others). However, they still all have each other, forming a familial circle of camaraderie, humor, and generosity that offers them some measures of security and comfort. They speak to each other in their own language (indeed, Take Out is essentially a Mandarin-language film shot in New York), watch each other's backs, and try to ease one another's fears, succeeding to some extent just by being there to make the effort. Therein lies the genesis for Baker's great talent for portraying subcultures like the little slice of the Chinese diaspora we see in Take Out, which shines a humanistic light on the incredible tenacity, codes of loyalty, and simple need for friendship and belonging that define these close-knit groups just trying to get by.

Aiden Noesi and Prince Adu in Prince of Broadway

Following Take Out, Tsou would become a crucial member of Baker's creative team, aiding him as a producer, camera operator, props and costume manager, and even actor across multiple projects. For his next film, 2008's Prince of Broadway, Baker shifted his focus ever-so-slightly over to Upper Manhattan's wholesale district, situating his new story in the underground market in knock-off brand-name clothes and merchandise that thrives in the shadow of the nearby Flatiron Building. In an interesting inversion of Ming and his flights across the city, Ghanaian immigrant-turned-hustler Lucky (Prince Adu) makes his living by mostly staying put in one spot on the sidewalk, calling out to passersby to entice them into checking out his goods. His business partner is the Armenian-Lebanese Levon (Karren Karagulian, who played one of Ming's customers in Take Out and has had a role in each of Baker's features since), who mans the front counter in a small, bare-bones storefront where, behind a hidden door leading to another room, he sells his counterfeit merch to the unsuspecting customers Lucky brings to him. One winter day, Lucky is abruptly confronted by an old flame, Linda (Kat Sanchez), who walks up to him, drops a bundled-up baby (Aiden Noesi) into his arms, tells him the child is his son, and takes off just as quickly. What follows is a robust and very funny film that continues and handsomely expands upon Take Out's visual, thematic, and narrative tropes, showcasing Baker's skill at using simple, efficient, and effective plot drivers to naturally propel his characters and audience into an immersive, vérité-style tour of urban spaces and sites of commerce both illicit and legit. In Take Out, the jar of tip money that Ming fills with bills and coins on his return visits to the restaurant is all that's needed to maintain a current of suspense - will it contain enough money to save him by the end of the day? - cleanly freeing up the rest of the film for more observational and character-driven matters. In Prince of Broadway, the sudden arrival of Lucky's son into his life opens the door for a series of richly comic scenes as the bewildered new father hilariously tries to see to the child's needs, breaks the news to his current romantic partner Karina (Keyali Mayaga), enlists her help in caring for the precocious toddler (who goes nameless for most of the film), and continues to work his daily hustle bringing customers to Levon's shop with the kid in tow, either plopped into a green milk crate, wandering freely among the clients and merch in Levon's back room, or safely secured in a stroller as a grimacing Lucky pushes him through the snow-choked streets.This noticeably feels like a fuller film story-wise, fitting in subplots involving Linda and her tense yet tender relationship with her exasperated mother and Levon's fraying bond with his wife Nadia (Victoria Tate), story strands presented with their own layers of comedy, such as the scene in which Levon's attempts to converse with Nadia in a busy restaurant keep getting interrupted by loud birthday celebrations, eventually causing him to snap.

The small production, equipped with a budget of $45,000, was aided considerably by Prince Adu, who not only ably put his acting inspirations to the test in the lead role, but also lent his deep scope of experience working in New York's wholesale clothing industry, legitimate and otherwise, and offered a wide range of services to the crew, including cast members, locations, and inside knowledge of the city's fashion black market and its East African community. The generous amount of great stuff Baker gives to his viewers throughout Prince of Broadway - outrageous situations; bold, in-your-face confrontations; moments of sincere reconciliation and understanding; a sharply observant and respectful eye for local color, racial diversity, and human personality; on-point dialogue and interactions; and an abiding sense of compassion for all we see - would set the precedent for the films to come. New York is given the same meaty, novelistic treatment of vastness, grandeur, and possibility found in the other great city works by Hugo and Zola, Truffaut and Rivette, Wong Kar-Wai and Edward Yang, not to mention the best of Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese's New York stories, the city rendered by Baker's roving, crystalline HD camerawork as a rough urban wonderland of signs and storefronts, food vendors and convenience stores, fire escapes and brownstones, towering buildings looming over busy streets, reflected in glass surfaces, besieged by blizzards. Through it all, Lucky and Levon carry the film as appealing everyman heroes, flawed and funny, inspiring in their dogged attempts to make ends meet and man up to face the new challenges life has dealt them. With Take Out and Prince of Broadway, two compelling and attentive accounts of the 21st-century immigrant experience in one of America's biggest and most romanticized cities, working wonders with minuscule budgets, lucky breaks, and a dedicated network of friends and allies (including Lee Daniels, who presented Prince of Broadway for its theatrical release in 2010), Baker had taken his decisive first steps as a firmly humanistic artist and an exemplar (and vocal supporter) of low-budget, DIY independent filmmaking done right.

Besedka Johnson and Dree Hemingway in Starlet

Starlet (2012) represents a significant step forward for Baker's cinema in terms of feel and tone, marking the first time he has achieved and maintained a specific sense of atmosphere through pure technique. Radium Cheung's smooth, soft-focused cinematography and Manual's ambient score pull us into a dreamy vision of California's San Fernando Valley submerged in sunlight, heat, vegetation, thick plumes of pot smoke, and stale reservoirs of boredom and resignation. There isn't the same sense of survival-driven urgency that runs through the previous films, but rather a more insular, leisurely aimlessness, pointing to an underlying spiritual lack in the film's young characters, who work in the local adult entertainment industry. Before she ended up in the big, mostly empty house she shares with her friends Melissa (Stella Maeve) and scheming goofball Mikey (James Ransone), the long-legged, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jane (Dree Hemingway) probably set out for Los Angeles with dreams of landing a role as a rookie cop or superheroine on the next big TV show or blockbuster movie. The work she found instead, while a far cry from those mainstream-approved avenues to stardom, isn't portrayed as a soul-crushing hell either. Instead, it's boiled down into a mundane blur of contract obligations, convention hall appearances, lots of waiting around, and, yes, the occasional hardcore porn shoot, which doesn't even happen until nearly an hour into the film. Baker deftly touches on the common bits of Jane's work - a fleeting blood test here, a phone call about the upcoming shoot there - without dwelling on them for longer than needed, and only provides a few hints and clues about her job in the scenes leading up to the shoot. His main objective is to observe this young woman as she drifts through this strange existence out among the palm trees and high tension towers with Starlet, her beloved Chihuahua (Baker's actual canine companion Boonee). At times, it feels as if she's living a hazy dream life shared with her fellow Angelinos - as always with Baker, the background characters are plentiful and all wonderful, each person's individuality kept intact and whole, contributing to the film's endearing, matter-of-fact humanism.

After trawling nearby yard sales to furnish her dismally bare room, Jane brings home an artfully decorated thermos (proudly claiming it as her new "vase," much to the seller's chagrin) that turns out to contain several tightly rubber-banded rolls of cash. Money and the means of acquiring it are never too far from Bakers' characters' minds, driving them to acts of cleverness, desperation, greed, and generosity. In Jane's case, it proves to be a source of moral tension as she goes back to the prickly old woman who sold her the thermos, Sadie (Besedka Johnson), and, instead of returning it, tries to come up with ways to help and spend time with her in a series of increasingly funny, deliciously awkward "chance" encounters. This perhaps inevitably leads to Sadie, suspicious of and finally fed up with this strange girl who keeps popping up in her life to offer unwanted assistance, spraying her in the face with a can of mace. But there is far more to Starlet than another odd couple comedy or juicy exposé of Los Angeles' porn industry, deepening in maturity and emotional nuance as we spend more time with Jane, Sadie, Starlet, and the varied cast of characters around them. Because his actors tend to be so interesting, their characters so well-written and -performed, and their dialogue so consistently sharp-witted and true, Baker's films are, among other things, some of the most satisfying "hangin' out" movies ever made, and Starlet is certainly no exception, giving each character sufficient room to develop and come into their own, subtly captivating us with their individual quirks, flaws, and motivations. In an interview with Baker focused on Starlet, Adam Nayman draws a valid connection between him and Jean Renoir, citing the famous line from The Rules of the Game (1939) that most cleanly sums up both directors' approaches to their characters: "Everyone has their reasons." This in turn gives each actor behind those characters a chance to make a substantial impression in the screen time they've been given, and Hemingway, Johnson, Maeve, Ransone, and Karagulian as Jane and Melissa's producer all put in fine work in their respective roles, inflecting Starlet with more charm, honest emotion, and personality than one might have expected from this modestly scaled comedy at first glance. In Baker's world, just as everyone has their reasons, everyone also has their own part to play in some greater drama, their presence in the frame, however prominent or minimal, entirely justified.

Sadie lives by herself in a slightly dilapidated old house all but overrun with wild vines, bushes, grass, flowers, and the creeping roots, branches, and leaves of a giant tree that majestically dominates her front yard. The place is, of course, a reflection of the woman who has taken refuge in it: separate from the rest of the world, content on existing in peace and isolation (though Sadie and her home are intruded upon with an order to clean up the brush and clutter after a tripping incident involving the mailman). However, slowly, and still somewhat reluctantly, Sadie lets Jane in bit by bit, revealing welcome flashes of biting humor and sharing a few of the things that still bring her happiness and solace, like her mantle filled with little Eiffel Towers and other precious pieces of Paris memorabilia, evoking a city Sadie has never been to, but adores nonetheless (she speaks lovingly of the Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées to Jane, and recalls a film she saw long ago with Astaire and Hepburn). One especially lovely scene finds Sadie sitting with Jane and Starlet in her garden, where they talk and have coffee. Cheung's digital cinematography, while noticeably desaturated throughout, still accommodates a delicate color palette that nicely brings out the violets, reds, yellows, and greens surrounding the two women and little dog in this hidden patch of paradise. Jane asks Sadie what her favorite flower is, to which she responds, "Mmm, I like the morning glory." The rides to and from the grocery store Jane initially offers to Sadie expand to outings to the bingo hall that serves as Sadie's preferred source of public entertainment and the quiet cemetery where, under the trailing tresses of tall willow trees, she visits her husband Frank's resting place, bringing him a different bunch of flowers every visit. These few little rituals and familiar spots are the extent of the outside world Sadie lets into her life, having weathered her many years of time, loss, and disappointment to arrive at her little island of routine and solitude, content to let the years slip by unchecked around it as she drinks her instant coffee, cuts her clippings, and makes her visits to the grocery store, the bingo hall, and the cemetery as needed. When Jane comes into her life, she brings a whirlwind of discord, awkwardness, unpredictability, and some reckoning with her abandoned past (a visit to the zoo where Frank once proposed to Sadie leaves the older woman visibly shaken, haunted by the unearthed memories), but also warmth, companionship, genuine concern for her well being, and enough spunk and stubbornness to match the seasoned octogenarian's arsenal. The fantastic chemistry between this incongruous dynamic duo comes from the fortuitous pairing of Dree Hemingway, the young daughter of actress Mariel and great-granddaughter of literary icon Ernest, with one Beatrice Vivian Divic, whom Tsou Shih-Ching spotted at a Y.M.C.A. swimming pool one day in the summer of 2011. After Divic and her first husband, an artist named Johnson, divorced in the 1950s, she opened and ran a dress shop in the Valley (later launching a second location in North Hollywood) that bore the name she would eventually adopt as her own: Besedka. She also practiced astrology and lived for a time in San Francisco, where she managed a condominium building. Sadie was Besedka Johnson's first and only film role, earning her a Special Jury Award at the 2012 edition of the SXSW Film Festival; additionally, she and her cast mates were honored with a deserved Robert Altman Award at the 2013 Film Independent Spirit Awards.

The mother of three sons, Besedka Johnson passed away on April 4th, 2013, at the age of 87. Her layered, deeply affecting work in Starlet is one of the great autumnal female performances for the screen, and deserves to be recognized as one of the brightest treasures in recent American cinema.

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine

A scuffed and scratched tabletop fills the frame, over which the opening titles roll out, an instrumental rendition of Victor Herbert's "Toyland" forlornly plays, and one set of hands passes to another a chocolate-covered doughnut. From there, Tangerine (2015), Sean Baker's now-legendary fifth feature film, wastes no time in firing up, introducing its two heroines, transgender prostitutes Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), along with the matter that will send them across Hollywood on Christmas Eve on a quest for answers and revenge, that of Sin-Dee's pimp boyfriend Chester's (Ransone) infidelity during her brief stint in jail. As Sin-Dee roars and rampages and Alexandra tries, with little success, to keep the ensuing drama to a minimum, Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karagulian) picks up one amusing passenger after another, ranging from an affable, proudly part-Cherokee older gentleman (veteran actor Clu Gulager) to a pair of wasted losers who spray the inside of his taxi with foul sick. Unbeknownst to his wife and prying mother-in-law, Razmik seeks out hookers - specifically trans hookers - between fares so he can get off on getting them off, eventually bringing him into contact with Alexandra and Sin-Dee, for whom he's developed "a little crush," and setting the stage for a climactic showdown at the fabled L.A. establishment Donut Time entirely befitting the wild, emotionally charged ride leading up to it.

Baker's decision to shoot Tangerine on an iPhone was mainly motivated by practical reasons, as he would be working with a small budget once again, this one under half of Starlet's $235,000. Determined to give the film its own kinetic look with the limited funds available to him, and encouraged by Spike Lee's effective use of the iPad in his Red Hook Summer (2012), Baker took the iPhone 5s into serious consideration, finally convinced by the timely availability of a prototype anamorphic adapter from Moondog Labs that would give Tangerine the wide, cinematic aesthetic he sought and the vote of confidence put in by executive producer Mark Duplass, who was excited by the "punk rock" spirit such a move would lend the project (Mark's brother and filmmaking partner Jay also served as an executive producer, while those credited with various producer roles include friends and frequent collaborators Tsou, Karagulian, Cheung, Prince of Broadway co-writer Darren Dean, and Chris Bergoch, Baker's co-writer on Starlet, Tangerine, and The Florida Project). Baker and Cheung shot the film together using three iPhone 5s devices - two for regular use while one was kept aside for backup - outfitting them with the adapter from Moondog Labs, a Filmic Pro app, and a Steadicam Smoothee rig. After filming concluded, Baker sold two of the iPhones on eBay, while the third has been acquired by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, where it will be displayed once it opens in 2019.

The iPhone's role in Tangerine's creation proved to be an irresistible talking point throughout the film's publicity campaign following its triumphant premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, setting a new standard for what could be achieved with tools that budding filmmakers could easily afford and acquire. Baker stressed that practicality was the main factor behind the bold choice, closely tied to the street-level experience of shooting in Hollywood's sex district. The iPhone's unobtrusiveness made it easier for Baker and Cheung to shoot the actors in-character in public settings surrounded by bystanders and scenes of everyday life they encountered (each take followed by the filmmakers getting the unsuspecting passersby to sign releases to approve their presence in the final film). In turn, Rodriguez, Taylor, and the other performers, already accustomed to shooting selfies and videos with their own phones and seeing such devices everywhere around them, were able to feel more comfortable and relaxed filming the often heated scenes on sidewalks, in buses and subway stations, and at such landmark L.A. locations as El Gran Burrito, Hamburger Mary's (where Alexandra has booked a singing gig, actually filmed inside The Cork Lounge in Sherman Oaks), the Launderland Coin Laundry, and Donut Time at Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, which was a well-known gathering place for the sex workers who lived and operated in the area before it closed in 2016. Shooting with iPhones also gave Baker and Cheung greater liberty for creative effects like the shot Baker took from his bike of Sin-Dee leaving Donut Time to set off on her mission, gliding around her in a swift, energetic brushstroke of motion. In another memorable scene that plays out in a mesmerizing long take, the inside of a car wash is portrayed as a private space of kaleidoscopic beauty and erotic release for Razmik and Alexandra seen from the backseat of his taxi. Once shooting had wrapped, Baker, his color gradist Luke Cahill, and the rest of the post-production team worked hard to boost the image's color saturation and add grain, successfully giving the film a bright "pop verité" look that renders the graffiti murals, outfits, gaudy Christmas decorations, and even Razmik's yellow cab in gloriously lurid tones. It's all perfectly suited to a film that hurtles headlong into Tinseltown's seediest spots (helped along by a lively soundtrack filled out by artists Baker discovered on SoundCloud), using fittingly unconventional methods to map out a secret side of Los Angeles that lies far beyond the tired images of the fabled, fame-fixated city that have come before. Tangerine doesn't just uncover the alternative angles to this community - it immortalizes and celebrates them.

When my girlfriend picked up Tangerine from the DVD shelf at our local library a week or so before Christmas' arrival last year, before either of us had seen any of Sean Baker's films, she had a good feeling about it: here was a fresh alternative Christmas movie that would be adventurous, empathetic, and a little wild in all the best ways. She was right on the money, as she so often was with her idiosyncratic movie choices, and yet neither of us were quite prepared for what we would discover over the course of the film's rollicking 88 minutes: a truly funny comedy with a rare sense of authenticity to its sharp dialogue and situations, a mature sensitivity to the hard reality beneath the humorous predicaments (as in one scene in which a client's refusal to pay Alexandra leads to a run-in with two police officers), and a clear sympathy with the characters who get pulled into them by circumstance, desire, jealousy, and love - for this film isn't just about revenge, lust, and survival on the streets, but also heartbreak, disillusionment, and the resilience of friendship. A hilarious running gag in which Sin-Dee practically drags across town the one with whom Chester cheated on her, a white cisgender woman named Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), unexpectedly gives way to a tentative truce between the two, sealed with a few shared hits from a crack pipe, while the most tender moment in the film is Alexandra's performance at Hamburger Mary's, a sweet, sad rendition of "Toyland" that casts a short-lived spell of lost innocence and nostalgic yearning in the dark club.

Leading yet another terrific ensemble cast, Rodriguez and Taylor both excel, balancing their own experiences with the acting skill needed to keep the film's momentum going and deliver on an emotional level. Baker places great faith in the talents he finds for his films, hoping that each opportunity he gives an exciting, as-yet untested actor like Charles Jang, Prince Adu, Besedka Johnson, Rodriguez, or Taylor will not only benefit such worthy talents, but also help bring about greater measures of change, acceptance, and equality in the film industry. That wish has so far only partly come true for Tangerine's stellar actresses: though Taylor won both a Gotham Award and an Independent Spirit Award for her work in the film and has landed roles in projects like the AMC show Dietland and the 2018 independent film Myra, she has also described how difficult it continues to be for her to find worthwhile parts - specifically, ones that reflect her identity as a woman as opposed to a trans woman. Nevertheless, Tangerine has been hailed as a significant milestone in LGBTQ cinema while Baker continues to advocate for inclusion and change, working to ensure every film he makes is a gesture of solidarity with his performers. While discussing The Florida Project's young cast members and his hopes for their future success, he put it in the simplest terms: "I would love to see the industry embrace all my actors."

Abbey Lee and Jean Bly in Snowbird

In the year between Tangerine and The Florida Project, Baker was commissioned by Kenzo to make a short film showcasing the French fashion house's 2016 spring/summer collection. The new adventure took the filmmaker to his most far-flung shooting location yet: the off-grid desert community of Slab City, California, made up of lonely huddles of trailers and campers scattered across the flat, arid plain. Emboldened by his positive experience shooting Tangerine, Baker chose to use the iPhone once again, this time equipping himself with the new 6s model, also outfitted with the Filmic Pro app and Moondog Labs' anamorphic adapter. He took on Alexis Zabe, the esteemed Mexican cinematographer who shot Fernando Eimbcke's Duck Season and Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light (2007) and Post Tenebras Lux (2012), and brought along a drone that was put to good use capturing the short's impressive aerial shots. The result was Snowbird, a sumptuous ten-minute treat starring Abbey Lee as a young woman named Theo who decides one morning to bake a cake, generously slathering it in white icing and sprinkles, and proceeds to bring her tasty creation around to her neighbors, offering a piece to everyone she meets. The visits are pleasant: the first finds her dropping in on Jean Bly as she's comfortably enjoying a morning drink with her dog outside her mobile home; later on, inside his own abode, Jack Two Horse excitedly shows Theo the "treasures" he found out in the desert - some old bullets, part of a bomb, some mine components, all to be put towards a future "art project." The cast once again integrates experienced actors like Lee and Mary Woronov with people from the milieu where Baker and his team filmed, in this case the actual, laid-back, wind-weathered residents of the isolated desert outpost. The iPhone's compact size was once again crucial for ensuring the film crew's presence was as minimal and unobtrusive as possible, respecting the privacy of the welcoming community members whose faces and homes, the latter beautifully decorated with all manner of rusted junk, discarded kitsch, artfully strewn clutter, and scrawled messages, add a fascinating new dimension to Baker's ongoing documentation of American iconography. Prior to Snowbird, Lee appeared in George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which one can imagine being an influence on the short film's semi-post-apocalyptic imagery - particularly the sequences following Lee, clad in her blue and white Kenzo-designed dress and accompanied the dreamy score by Stephonik Youth (Baker's sister and the production designer for Prince of Broadway and The Florida Project), as she crosses the stretches of sun-scorched red sand while clutching her tin cake container close, looking very much like some exiled warrior queen bearing the last remaining relic of humanity in her arms. Baker has repeatedly demonstrated a knack for ending his films on just the right note, and Snowbird is no exception, arriving at an unexpectedly moving conclusion that suggests that love, though it can't defeat age, still very much has the power to transcend it.

Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, and Valeria Cotto in The Florida Project

The lives of the "motel families" forced by circumstances to take up residence indefinitely in the roadside, pay-by-week accommodations outside of Orlando's Disney World park were first brought to Baker's attention by Chris Bergoch while the two friends were writing the screenplay for Starlet in 2012. Years later, he decided the time was right to explore the topic more thoroughly for a new film, using a grant from Cinereach to travel to Florida to conduct his research, meeting motel residents and managers to hear their stories and gain valuable insight into their situations. Surprisingly, this grim subject matter would form the basis of arguably the most purely delightful work Baker has made yet, a film that digs deep into the daily reality of this pocket of America's poor over one hot Floridian summer mostly through the eyes of six year-old Moonee (a fantastic Brooklynn Prince) and her fierce, free-spirited young mother Halley (the equally formidable Bria Vinaite).

The Florida Project's two million-dollar production brought a fresh set of opportunities and challenges for Baker, translating into a whole new arena for him and his teammates to play in. The director seized the chance to shoot on 35mm film, once again turning to Alexis Zabe for his expertise behind the camera. Baker found himself working for the first time with a large union crew, who were somewhat unaccustomed to his more casual, on-the-fly methods on set. And in the 35 days allotted to them for filming, the filmmakers had to contend with the oppressive summer heat as they balanced the varied levels of experience across the eclectic cast, which included Prince, who had previously appeared in commercials and films, and her less-seasoned child co-stars (Valeria Cotto, who plays Moonee's newfound best friend Jancey, was spotted by Baker in a Target with her mother while Christopher Rivera, who plays their faithful companion Scooty, actually came from a real motel family); Bria Vinaite, who Baker discovered via her Instagram account; a few familiar faces (both Karren Karagulian and Tsou Shih-Ching pop up in small roles); and the superb Willem Dafoe, seamlessly blending in as the stern yet kind-hearted motel manager Bobby. In the end, everything clicked, bringing about the creation of a truly special film that's as light and sweet as cotton candy, as polished and satisfying as a pop tune, and yet as sad, serious, and honest as the real-life topic it addresses demands.

Most of the people who see The Florida Project will have never spent a summer quite like the one Moonee and her friends have roaming around the grounds of the motels their guardians have chosen to be their homes for the time being - and yet the film is steeped in the universal sensations of fun and freedom that define those precious swaths of time spent in what Michael Chabon describes as "the wilderness of childhood." In this place, boredom is kept at bay by limitless reserves of imagination and play, the days filled with sugar and laughter; an uninhibited flow of jokes, stories, and chatter; rude pranks, devilish stunts, and torrents of gleeful profanity (not for nothing did Baker describe this film as his loving tribute to The Little Rascals); the sharing of gifts, discoveries, and secrets between friends. We are reminded how, from a child's perspective, everything is cast in a light of novelty, amusement, or strangeness, uncovered with an endlessly inquisitive lens of curiosity, labelled in the special lingo kids freely invent on the spot as part of their priceless ongoing interpretation of the world around them. In yet another stroke of brilliance, the film was shot and treated in post so that the colors would pop brighter and sounds would be more intense and enveloping so as to recreate the heightened senses that children still possess, a strategy that pays off beautifully in relation to the surreal feast of wonders the Florida setting generously offers up: helicopters noisily taking off from a nearby launch pad; a giant orange dome housing a great fruit emporium; a massive grinning wizard complete with staff and pointy hat perched atop his gift shop storefront like some protective deity; splendidly garish painted murals depicting grinning orcas, crashing waves, and wonderstruck families; a pop art paradise of lights, signs, and ads designed to entice the tourists. Best of all is the film's central location, and one for the ages: the Magic Castle motel, the faux fairy tale fortress that serves as Bobby's domain and Moonee and Halley's home base, its walls painted the pleasing purple hue of black cherry ice cream. Not far beneath this sugary facade lies a not-so-secret world of bedbug-infested mattresses, rowdy guests and police interventions, run-down utilities in constant need of repair, disappointed couples who arrived expecting something a little closer to their Disney©-certified dreams, shifty predators snooping around the grounds, and the weekly ordeal of finding the rent, which Halley accomplishes by hawking wholesale perfume to vacationers, pulling off scams, and other, even less savory means. The ubiquitous layers of blankets and trap music that cushion Halley and Moonee's precarious lives can only hold back the reality hinted at in welfare meetings and the hovering threat of child services for so long. But every available chance for fun to be had is happily seized: serendipitous rainbows, sublime orange-violet sunsets, a birthday fireworks show, a dollar store shopping spree. In this film, too, we come to know the people who live and work in this place, populating this specific world: the Magic Castle's front desk staff; Jancey's grandmother (Josie Olivo); Gloria (Sandy Kane), the day-drinking, topless sunbather whose exhibitionist routine sends the kids into howls of delight; Scooty's mother Ashley (Mela Murder), who works at the nearby Waffle House, passes along free food to Moonee, and hangs out with Halley in her off-hours. During this summer, in the lush expanses of green growth and bright blue skies, Moonee and Jancey cement their friendship with expeditions to forbidden zones, scoops of red jam spread on white bread on the bowed trunk of an ancient tree, a safari adventure to a field of grazing cows, all carefully captured by Zabe and Baker's attentive camera. Golden moments like those alone earn The Florida Project a place at the table of great films about childhood occupied by the likes of Jean Vigo, François Truffaut, Víctor Erice, and Hirokazu Kore-eda, to say nothing of its hard look at fragmented families caught in the grip of poverty, bringing to mind Tsai Ming-Liang's Stray Dogs (2013), Kore-eda's Palme d'Or winner Shoplifters (2018), and especially Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank (2009), in many ways an older sister to Baker's film, or the masterful blend of euphoria, crackling comedy, and creeping discord that propels it towards its heartbreaking, exhilarating final moments.

In the wake of The Florida Project's terrific success (a world premiere in the Cannes Film Festival's Directors' Fortnight program, drawing glowing praise and a swift acquisition by A24; numerous prizes for Baker and his cast, including young Prince; an Oscar nomination for Dafoe; and a flurry of affectionate fan tributes from around the world), there's no telling how far Baker will go, nor where exactly he'll take us next with the new film he is currently developing. But the works he's made so far give us nothing less than an essential account of life, work, and play on the fringes of 21st-century America, celebrating its diversity, championing its humble heroes, and reminding us of the need for awareness, laughter, and sympathy every step of the way.

Recommended Reading
The following interviews and critical pieces were especially helpful for their wealth of information and insights on Sean Baker's films and working methods, and are all well worth reading:

• How To Be Unstoppable: Sean Baker and the Digital Filmmaking Revolution - Peter Broderick, IndieWire, July 10, 2015

• Interview: Sean Baker on Making The Florida Project - Elise Nakhnikian, Slant Magazine, October 25, 2017

 The Underground Economy: Sean Baker Interview (The Florida Project) - Christopher Heron, The Seventh Art, Oct. 13, 2017

Interview: Sean Baker [The Florida Project] - Amy Taubin, Film Comment, September 4, 2017

 Director Sean Baker On Why He Shoots His Films On iPhones - Nicole LaPorte, Fast Company, February 19, 2016

• Film of the Week: Tangerine - Jonathan Romney, Film Comment, July 10, 2015

• Interview: Sean Baker [Tangerine] - Jordan Cronk, Film Comment, July 8, 2015

Golden Girls: Sean Baker's Starlet - Adam Nayman, Cinema Scope, Issue 52