Published Oct 20, 2017Surely set to stand as one of the best movies of 2017, Sean Baker's The Florida Project takes a humanizing look at America's "hidden homeless" population via a group of low- to no-income families living in a Florida motel. The film is remarkable both for its story and for Baker's ability to make it real — The Florida Project often feels like a documentary.
"We're very conscious in our approach, because representation is extremely important," Baker tells Exclaim!, acknowledging his desire to tell real, entertaining stories about marginalized groups. "When we tell a story about a group that we're not a part of, there's a major responsibility to be respectful and be responsible, and it requires collaboration and it requires an approval process."
To achieve that realism, the director used unconventional casting methods for his follow-up to 2015's critically praised Tangerine. For example, he cast Bria Vinaite to play complicated single mother Halley through her Instagram page.
"We cast her from Instagram, of all places, and she had to hold her own within a month," Baker says on the phone from New York. "She made me laugh. The Instagram showed me that she had this self-deprecating humour about her, and she had a very youthful, energetic vibe."
Baker explains that he wanted something that couldn't come from a professional performer.
"You know, I cast Tangerine leads off the street, and there were other characters in Tangerine that we cast through Vine and YouTube. But I had never cast a lead through a social network, and then this girl comes along and it's like, we have to give her a chance," he says. "Her Instagram video told me, basically, that this girl had something unique. Told me that she was very fresh, and she was bringing something that I just knew I wouldn't be able to get from an established actor. And also, on top of that, that character really needed the audience's suspension of disbelief immediately."
Halley is arguably the most important character of the film — a negligent single mother who we need to sympathize with despite her many bad life decisions. It would be a tough role for any actor, let alone a first-timer.
"She was under a lot of pressure, if you think about it. She had never acted before," Baker says. "She took the time to really come early and spend the time with an acting coach to understand the mechanics of acting. I'm so proud of her. I'm just so proud of her. I think she really, really nailed it. I really do."
Baker says that fellow star Willem Dafoe, who plays the manager of a run-down Florida motel, was another integral reason the film worked out so well.
"Not only was he talented, but he really did so much for the Bobby character," he says. "He really humanized him but also on the set, he was just wonderful to work with. Very patient, very kind, very helpful. Working with all these kids and first timers, yet he still — he became the Florida man we wanted him to become."
Baker adds, "He helped out Bria in many ways. Not in a lecture type way, but in a way where it's just a casual reassurance to make her feel confident."
The Florida Project is now playing in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The film expands to Edmonton, Calgary, Victoria, Winnipeg and Halifax on October 27. You can read Exclaim!'s review of the film here.