The director behind Tangerine takes his imagination up a gear with a story about America's hidden homeless. At its heart, he says, lies a powerful empathy.

The filmmaker behind iPhone movie Tangerine takes his imagination up a gear with an empowering story about America's hidden homeless – a celebration of innocence and energy that's easily one of the year's best movies. But at its heart, he says, lies a powerful empathy.

Some directors have a trademark visual flair, a distinctive tone of dialogue or even a proclivity for certain camera movements; traits that can run across multiple films over numerous years and manage to create an indelible sense of identity every time.

For Sean Baker, that unique stamp is his empathy.

As with previous films Tangerine (about a transgender sex worker) or Take Out (about an illegal Chinese immigrant working as a deliveryman in New York), empathy washes over his latest movie, The Florida Project, with the same presence as the glow of Orlando sunshine permeating through it.

Set in the Magic Castle Inn, a bright purple motel near Disney World (which exists in real life), the film captures a community of extended-stay guests. Among them is a trio of sanguine children who, somewhat nonplussed to their tough economic situation, use the motel complex as a giant playground.

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Their naivety, sense of adventure and endless imagination creates a brightness that only helps illustrate the more serious situation these families are often in.

“The most important part of this film,” says Baker, “is shining a light on the hidden homeless in the United States and the fact that we have families, individuals and children using budget hotels as their last refuge before having to resort to the streets.”

While The Florida Project feels distinctly American in its style and tone – itself a quiet reflection on the crumbling notion of the American Dream post-2008 financial crash – it’s actually a much different type of cinema that has formed Baker’s approach.

“British social realism has had an incredible impact on my career,” Baker says. “The films of Ken Loach and Alan Clarke especially.” In fact, Baker doesn’t hesitate when asked if this is a political statement or whether he considers himself a political filmmaker.

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“There is definitely an issue that is being addressed here,” he says. “I don’t feel like I see enough of [that] going on in mainstream cinema and TV.”

Baker’s resulting film is a beautiful, compassionate and thoughtful juxtaposition of perspectives, capturing the innocence of childhood and the pressures of adulthood coexisting in one unravelling narrative.

“The way poverty is often tackled in a movie… I think what happens is that you have an exercise in miserablism,” he says. “It’s not realistic. It doesn’t treat  characters as humans. I wanted to focus on the joy of childhood and that is universal, no matter what your backdrop.”

While The Florida Project feels entirely unique in its construct and presentation, it does continue something of a theme for Baker, as he acknowledges.

“All of my films have something to do with the people left behind by the American Dream, living on the outskirts,” he says.

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This fixation on telling unconventional stories about unconventional people also extends to Baker’s casting method, as he often puts people with no prior acting experience in his films – including this film’s ostensible lead, Bria Vinaite, who was discovered from Instagram.

“I’ve had a great run with first-time actors,” he says “I guess what it does for me is provide a fresh face, which I think is so important for certain characters, especially with someone like Halley [played by Bria Vinaite], in order to have that suspension of disbelief kick in and stay in.”

It also creates a spark that Baker feels breeds a sense of authenticity, excitement and purity. “When you mix seasoned actors and first-timers, something interesting happens. The seasoned actor will rub off on the first-timer and then the first-timer’s freshness and naivety somehow excites the seasoned actor.”

As the conversation comes to a close, Baker circles back once more to the core of his films, something that outweighs the style, the methods and the casting: compassion. “I’ve come across issues and subjects where I feel that simply shining a light on them can only make the world a better place.”

The Florida Project is in cinemas 10 November.  To read our full interview with Sean Baker, check out Huck 63: The Fantasy Issue – published 14 December.

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