Throwing a dart at a map of the USA, aiming specifically for any locations just outside of a major city or landmark, the films of Sean Baker explore life on the very fringes of the American Dream. Having made five feature films since the start of his career in 2000, including Take Out, Prince of Broadway and Starlet, it wasn’t until the release of Tangerine in 2015 that Baker would finally be noticed for his contributions to independent American cinema.
Often keen to highlight low-budget success in the lower rungs of the industry ladder, it’s unusual that the Academy Awards have failed to recognise the achievements of Baker, from the aforementioned Tangerine to Red Rocket and The Florida Project that was merely awarded a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Willem Dafoe. So why is it that a film such as Sian Heder’s CODA or even 2020’s Minari has received so much more praise than Baker?
Helping to establish a new style in American cinema, heavily inspired by the authenticity of Italian neo-realism, Sean Baker’s impression of the USA is a complex and critical analysis. Often focusing on downtrodden characters on the precipice of ‘success’ as per the national myth, the likes of The Florida Project and Red Rocket have no interest in celebrating the frills and historical ‘greatness’ of the country, actively avoiding such comparisons to access the problems inherent within its contemporary identity.
This is a common thread that runs through the whole of Baker’s filmography, laying the ethos below the surface of the narrative, whether intentional or not, as the director explores the realities of small-town America. Such is particularly obvious in Baker’s most recent films, however, drawing frank attention to the Florida’s economic disparity in The Florida Project where the towering sight of the million-dollar Disney castle looms over the impoverished housing of the surrounding areas.
Donald Trump’s America is also brought into the critical eye in Baker’s most recent film Red Rocket where the demise of American values is the butt of the joke as the protagonist burns joints emblazoned with The Star-Spangled Banner and embodies all the selfishness and hatred fostered throughout the president’s time in office.
Telling Huck Magazine that he considers himself to be a “political filmmaker,” the filmmaker goes on to explain that, “All of my films have something to do with the people left behind by the American Dream,” with each of his films deconstructing this notion. Incredibly critical of how his country has transformed under modern politics and shifts in sociology, Baker adds: “I think those who are the unfortunate by-product of that are the ones who are then forced to live in the shadows of it…I think you can see, based on where the election went, where people’s heads are in terms of what they consider success – and that’s a very sad thing in my eyes”.
Having previously been recognised by the Academy Awards, Sean Baker is clearly on the radar of the industry, even if his films are continually omitted from the annual lineup. Applying a piercing criticism on modern America whilst deconstructing the lies that the Trump-era constructed, perhaps the Academy considers the films of Baker a little too bleak for their traditionally optimistic lineup. Then again, the Oscars have never been great at reflecting the realities and diversity of contemporary America.