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The films of Sean Baker are fast, beautiful, and deep
A tall, good looking stranger, forlorn and dazed, his face bruised and bloodied, turns up in a Texas town, though not by a horse. He arrives through a more disreputable and downbeat form of transportation.
A group of kids, avid for adventure, freedom and beauty, play out with funky and exhilarating abandon in the shadows of the most famous family resort in the country in search of small, fugitive pleasures. Despite their innocence and fun, the kids are consistently made aware of the more rueful, sad and socially restricted actions of the adults around them.
Two transgender prostitutes, close friends and confidantes, carve out a thrilling, desperate, and dangerous existence working the seedier districts of an off-Hollywood boulevard.
In the glorious, beautiful, fast and funky cinema of the exceptionally gifted American independent filmmaker Sean Baker, the furtive and transgressive are not just possible; they are the new accepted social norms.
Red Rocket (2021), The Florida Project (2017) and Tangerine (2015) make up the director’s trilogy about the tragic undertow of the American dream factory.
Sex work is the connecting thread of the films geographically spread out, from Los Angeles to Orlando and Texas City, respectively. “Los Angeles is a beautifully illustrated lie,” says one of the émigré characters in Tangerine.
Each film is fast, kinetic, with the style sharply tailored to their subjects and the subcultural milieu. The filmmaker exhibits not only tremendous empathy though also a wry and bemused openness about the most emotionally intricate and vulnerable aspects of identity, sexuality and the peculiar geometry of need.
Baker studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and earned his MFA from the directing program at the American Film Institute. His second feature, Take Out (2004), made with Shih-Ching Tsou, is coming out September 13 by Criterion.
I have been watching his films recently. I first saw Red Rocket at the New York Film festival last fall. The Florida Project was my favorite film the year of its release. I caught the premiere of Tangerine at Sundance.
Tangerine was shot on with customized iPhone cameras fitted with special anamorphic lenses that yielded a transfixing lascivious quality.
Except for its remarkable coda, The Florida Project was shot, on 35mm film stock, by the supremely gifted Alexis Zabe, the Mexican cinematographer of Carlos Reygadas’ great Silent Light (2007). The grain has a powerful solidity, and the palette is deeper, richer and often unsettling.
Shot by Texas-based independent cinematographer Drew Daniels, Red Rocket was photographed in Super-16, loose limbed and free, but also capable of beautiful and poetic moments, like the images of the amoral protagonist isolated in the nighthawk sky against the oil refineries, or operating his bicycle through a flooded embankment.
In Tangerine, the imagery has not only a spontaneity and mobility but a verve and ease at capturing bodies in motion, especially those photographed in very tight or cramped spaces that rather than feeling enclosed or claustrophobic becomes intuitively lived in and naturalistic.
If the first half of the movie unfolds in a harsh and radioactive wintry Los Angeles light, the second half takes place in a more plangent, nighthawk world of empty cabarets, transient hotels and all-night food establishments.
The second half is quieter and infinitely sadder as the camera, having fleetingly moved from character to character as though passing a baton, becomes increasingly more locked in.
Most movies set in and around Hollywood tend to return to questions of money and sex. Tangerine is clearly part of that discussion, as well as duplicity and those who wear masks, hiding but also exuberant in their attitudes and desire. The movie is about people trying to find the means to live an autonomous life without restrictions or regrets.
With The Florida Project, Baker’s subject, the interior lives of children, is knotty and complex. He reveals a toughness, affinity and sensitivity of some of the best practitioners of the form, like the French director Francois Truffaut, with his short Les mistons (1957) and his autobiographical debut feature, The 400 Blows (1959).
Kids are a natural for film given their unpredictable behavior, avid sense for adventure and their anarchic impulses. The line between realistic presentation and exploitation is exceptionally fine. One wrong move, and everything collapses.
Baker makes his young players active collaborators in the process, and the results deepen the material emotionally. This movie is a particular fresco that combines the lyrical, impudent power of Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933) with the disturbing and stark realism of Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados (1950).
The movie is like found art. It is never a sentimental or glorified portrait. Just the opposite, a cruel menace seems to hang over much of the film.
The primary location, the Magic Castle, is a garish three-story, mauve-colored motel for the economically distressed. The firecracker at the center of the story is Moonee, a precocious and wildly inventive six-year old. She has a quicksilver wit, a disarming smile and an irrepressible guile.
Moonee lives in unit 323, with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), at a nightly cost of $38. Played by an assured and vibrant young actress named Brooklynn Prince, Moonee lets her imagination run wild. She turns the motel and its adjacent spaces into her own private kingdom.
The movie feels almost plotless, the incidents, actions and developments pieced together as a series of thematically bound vignettes. Like Tangerine, Baker develops a fast and engaging rhythm that is often explosively funny and unpredictable.
He also edits his own films, and the cutting is fluid and striking. Baker has a canny eye for movement and spontaneity, and the kids’ actions, however irresponsible or selfish, have an unimpeachable logic.
Baker works in the vein of the Depression-era Our Gang comedies. With the start of her summer break Moonee has time to burn. The movie begins with a wail, or in this case, the first of a series of pincer attacks warding off the general boredom of a lazy summer afternoon.
Moonee is a thrill-seeker of the first order, and charismatic enough to draw a crowd, like her sidekick Scooty (Christopher Rivera). The kids are merry pranksters, and their mischief is more a function of their natural ebullience and curiosity. They are quiet rebels against the rule-bound order imposed by adults.
Working in widescreen and typically foregrounding the kids against these absurd objects, Baker and Zabe photograph these looming emporiums and bric a brac with an alienating strangeness, like the great French director Jacques Tati, in Playtime (1967).
Standing against the oblong dome shape of Orange World or the massive head of a wizard that adorns a second-hand novelty shop, the kids look like visitors from another planet.
Baker is never cruel or malicious about his characters. He is tough, but never judgmental.
In Red Rocket, Baker continues to investigate his outsider theme with his funny, dark valentine, about the redemptive power of sleaze and personal transformation.
Set against the 2016 election, the movie is Baker’s most expansive study of the American hustler, with the ridiculous named Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) retreating to Texas City, to the sanctuary of his wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), as he plots his comeback.
Mikey is an aging porn star in desperate need of a new angle. One of the recurring motifs in Baker’s trilogy is about the impossibility of fitting into any recognizable social order. One of the funniest moments in the film has Mikey trying to explain his work history to the straight world.
In the films of Sean Baker, everybody’s an actor, and his films are about various forms of exchange. “We made a business transaction,” one of the women tells the cops after they turn up on the street to break up her altercation with the parsimonious customer (Scott Krinsky).
In The Florida Project, Baker works through spellbinding moods, tender and heartbreaking, voluble and melancholy. What is particularly shattering is the movie has no protective distance. The kids are never shielded from the messy and harsh complications of adult life. More often than not they are thrown up against it.
Their innocence only carries them so far.
The narrative ruptures when their carelessness nearly causes a catastrophic accident in a nearby vacant lot. The fissures, of friendships and social connections, only deepen the vulnerability of Moonee and her mother.
Most impressively, Baker is not a moralist. In Red Rocket, the central relationship plays out between Mikey and 17-year-old Strawberry. Played by the terrific newcomer Suzanna Son, a donut shop worker whose sexual ease and freedom the paradistic Mikey sees as his third act reinvention. The humor is fast, colorful and observant without ever feeling cruel or taunting.
Baker loves his characters too much for nasty asides.
In The Florida Project, the kids are heartbreaking but never sentimentalized. Brooklynn Prince floats and whirls in the imagination, but what makes the character so alive and distinctive is the lack of pretense.
Her line readings fuse cruel observance with a lean sureness. “I can always tell when somebody is about to cry,” she says during one devastating moment. The two other primary kids, Christopher Rivera and Valeria Cotto, also demonstrate steely nerves and an emotional alertness.
The ending, with its much different speed and visual style, is open to multiple interpretations, a daring escape, a new beginning or a frightening emblem of a life ripped apart.
By refusing to ignore the cruel aspects of American life and culture, Sean Baker has pushed his art forward and expanded on the promise and excitement of his earlier work. The messiness and imperfections of Starlet and Tangerine were necessary steps in his formal and creative progression.
Red Rocket is not the masterpiece of The Florida Project. The glancing moods and casual rhythms are still pretty hypnotic. The movie came together very quickly after another project Baker had been developing with Willem Dafoe had to be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic
In the films of Sean Baker, nothing is ever quite settled. Emotions and feelings are seared. In his world, men are always in motion, or flight, from their femininity, their past. The women are the professionals, tough, beautiful, daring.
In their elastic and nonjudgmental wonder, these movies are very much of their time. They are very much worth yours.
Images from Red Rocket, courtesy of A24. Simon Rex in the top photo. At bottom, Rex and Suzanna Son. All rights reserved.