JUDY WOODRUFF: And now a new independent film opening this weekend spotlights a community not often seen in cinema, and is racking up the accolades.
Jeffrey Brown has the story.
WILLEM DAFOE: OK, I warned you, one drip and you’re out.
BROOKLYN PRINCE, Actress, “Moonee”: Oh, come on!
WILLEM DAFOE: Out now.
ACTOR: It’s going to melt outside.
WILLEM DAFOE: It’s melting inside too.
JEFFREY BROWN: “The Florida Project” follows a rebellious little girl named Moonee and her friends over one mischief-making summer outside Orlando.
BROOKLYN PRINCE: These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in, but let’s go anyways.
JEFFREY BROWN: But this is not the Orlando of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Instead, Moonee and her young single mother live in a run-down motel called The Magic Castle.
WILLEM DAFOE: It’s only the second week of summer, and there’s already been a dead fish in the pool.
BRIA VINAITE, Actress: I have failed as a mother, Moonee. You have disgraced me.
BROOKLYNN PRINCE: Yes, mom, you’re disgraced.
SEAN BAKER, Director/ Co-Writer, “The Florida Project”: I would say it’s like “The Little Rascals” 2017 in many ways.
JEFFREY BROWN: Independent filmmaker Sean Baker co-wrote and directed “The Florida Project”.
SEAN BAKER: But my whole career has been inspired and influenced by “The Little Rascals.” I think it’s because they used to play in syndication on local New York television, so I would come home from school and see these episodes, two or three after school every day. And they just stuck with me.
ACTRESS: Alfalfa, did you brush your teeth?
ACTOR: Yes, both of them.
JEFFREY BROWN: “The Little Rascals” was a series of shorts that first debuted in 1922 as part of the silent film era. In the ’50s, they were repackaged for television, following a band of children, Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat and others, always seeking out a new thrill and finding lots of trouble along the way.
SEAN BAKER: They were set against the Great Depression. Lots of the characters in “The Little Rascals” were actually living in poverty. But they never focused on that. They focused on the universal traits of children. And I thought that was beautiful.
JEFFREY BROWN: In similar fashion, “The Florida Project” is told through the eyes of children, but shows a community living on the margins.
WILLEM DAFOE: If you’re working, who’s looking after Moonee?
BRIA VINAITE: You’re not my father.
WILLEM DAFOE: I don’t want to be your father.
BRIA VINAITE: You can’t treat me like this.
JEFFREY BROWN: A young mother struggling to pay rent and care for a daughter who’s free to roam the parking lots, abandoned homes and the swamp around the motel, always a stone’s throw from Disney’s gilded wonderland.
BROOKLYNN PRINCE: Excuse me, Miss, could you give us some change please? We need to buy ice cream.
ACTOR: And the doctor said we have asthma and we got to eat ice cream right away.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s not what audiences often see in theaters today, either in subject matter or story structure, and can feel almost like a documentary.
SEAN BAKER: There is a story. I mean, we’re used to Hollywood filmmaking almost insists that we have a three-act structure and character arcs, this and that. We tried to break that a little bit by just — we want the audience to feel as if they’re actually spending the summer with Moonee.
So, summers aren’t exactly plot-driven, you know? We eventually do get there, and there’s an unfortunate inevitability that we’re leading towards. But, if there is a plot, it’s disguised. If there are act breaks, they’re blurry. The lines are blurred.
ACTRESS: I will go with you under one condition. You must promise that there is not going to be any drama.
ACTRESS: I promise. I promise.
JEFFREY BROWN: The 46-year-old Baker first gained attention for his 2015 film “Tangerine” about a transgender sex worker upset that her pimp and boyfriend has been cheating on her.
Much was made of how Baker shot it, on an iPhone 5s. And it was another film set against a fantasy world backdrop, Hollywood, with a community living on the margins.
SEAN BAKER: I think I’m drawn towards under-represented stories, under-represented communities and subcultures. It’s my response to what I’m not seeing in U.S. cinema.
But I don’t think it was a — so much of a conscious thing. It was more of like, I feel that these stories should be told because I want to know more about it. It gives me the opportunity to learn more about other people.
JEFFREY BROWN: This time, Baker shot on .35-millimeter film and cast a big supporting name, in Willem Dafoe, as the motel manager. He found one of his leads, Bria Vinaite, through social media. He thought she looked the part. She’d never acted before.
That made the 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince, who had done some acting, the veteran.
BRIA VINAITE: I would be a little bit nervous, but Sean, and Willem, Brooklyn, everyone on set just always made me feel really confident and comfortable. And because of them, I just felt like I had the confidence to do it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Did you — once you got to know each other, did you feel sort of like you were creating the scenes yourselves?
BROOKLYNN PRINCE: Yes. It felt like we didn’t even, like, need to be an actor. We just were ourselves the whole movie. And Sean was very honest about improvising. He’s like, let’s stick with this line. Or that’s a good line, but maybe we should do this word, instead of this word. And it would be just really fun, because it’s like another world.
SEAN BAKER: I really love mixing it up. I love combining seasoned actors with first-timers and with non-professionals. There’s three different groups.
And what happens, it’s a strange, wonderful alchemy.
JEFFREY BROWN: And yet inside that sense of spontaneity are very real issues Baker wanted to tackle.
SEAN BAKER: Using that — the term hidden homeless might scare some audience members away. They might think this is going to be a heavy-handed, very melodramatic film.
It’s actually quite a digestible one, because what we’re trying to do is have audiences hopefully embrace and love little Moonee. So — but at the end of the night, when they’re going home, they’re thinking about the real Moonees who are living in the situation.
JEFFREY BROWN: From Washington, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.