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Filmmakers You Should Know: Sean Baker, Artisan of American Naturalism

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 7, 2012 at 12:53PM

No matter the scale of the production, American cinema largely reflects the conditions of a society that still has a hard time exploring its diversity. To put it simply: A lot of movies are made by white guys and revolve around white guys. American filmmaker Sean Baker is a white guy, but the four features he has written and directed over the last decade delve far deeper into the crevices of a country that contains many more stories beyond the market standard. Baker maintains a firm grasp of genre -- as his other career, creating the dopey comedy shows "Greg the Bunny" and "Warren the Ape" prove -- but applies it to unorthodox ends. While both his scrappy first feature, the college romp "Four Letter Words," and his latest effort, "Starlet" (which opens in limited release this Friday), revolve around archetypes of American youth, these familiar access points provide fluid transitions into perceptive looks at deep-seated insecurities. Baker tricks you into getting comfortable with his characters and then deconstructs everything you thought you knew about them.    However, that same strategy takes on a far greater dimension in his second and third features, both of which involve immigrant characters in neighborhoods where New York's melting pot dominates the streets as they attempt to eke out livings under strenuous circumstances. Shooting on the cheap with non-professional actors, Baker's approach calls to mind the innovations of Iranian neorealism rather than anything in contemporary American cinema (save for the early features of Ramin Bahrani, another student of Iranian cinema). Both the Chinese deliveryman in "Take Out" and the counterfeit bag salesman in "Prince of Broadway" fully inhabit their crushing realities, while Baker's unobtrusive camera creates a documentary-like naturalism that drains the artifice from each scene. At the same time, he clearly retains a tight control over these narratives, because the emotional payoffs of their final scenes simultaneously critique conventional Hollywood endings and improve on them. Baker's movies are undoubtedly heartfelt, but they're also revelatory in their honesty about human behavior. THE FILMS "Four Letter Words" (2000) Stylistically, Baker's uneven debut feature has little in common with the films that followed it, but this rowdy portrait of suburban friends reuniting for a long night of boozing and causing trouble benefits greatly from Baker's insightful screenplay. From the first scene in which one of the characters vomits all over the bathroom, "Four Letter Words" holds little back in displaying the messy compulsions of its nearly all-male cast, but it's especially notable that in between their giggling and excited talk of chasing tail they express continuous frustrations over their static lives. The movie resembles many movies but combines their tendencies into a unique equation: Baker funnels the hedonism of the "Animal House" mold into a generational portrait with roots in "Slacker" that also anticipates the satiric bent of "Harold and Kumar" while outdoing "American Pie" with a far smarter discourse on sexual politics. ("Don't put girls on a pedestal," one horny man says to another before expressing his predilection for Asian women over American ones.) The party atmosphere is merely a conduit for frank, insightful discussions about race, class and career ambitions. Everyone gets just drunk enough to say what they really think -- or at least act out their pent-up aggressions. Criticwire grade: A- WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? While not available online, used copies of the out-of-print DVD can be found on Amazon at low prices. Watch the trailer below:
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Spirit Awards '09: "Take Out" and "Prince of Broadway" Director Sean Baker
Jeng-hua Yu and Charles Jang in a scene from Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou's "Take Out." Image courtesy of CAVU Pictures.

No matter the scale of the production, American cinema largely reflects the conditions of a society that still has a hard time exploring its diversity. To put it simply: A lot of movies are made by white guys and revolve around white guys. American filmmaker Sean Baker is a white guy, but the four features he has written and directed over the last decade delve far deeper into the crevices of a country that contains many more stories beyond the market standard.

Baker maintains a firm grasp of genre -- as his other career, creating the dopey comedy shows "Greg the Bunny" and "Warren the Ape" prove -- but applies it to unorthodox ends. While both his scrappy first feature, the college romp "Four Letter Words," and his latest effort, "Starlet" (which opens in limited release this Friday), revolve around archetypes of American youth, these familiar access points provide fluid transitions into perceptive looks at deep-seated insecurities. Baker tricks you into getting comfortable with his characters and then deconstructs everything you thought you knew about them.   

However, that same strategy takes on a far greater dimension in his second and third features, both of which involve immigrant characters in neighborhoods where New York's melting pot dominates the streets as they attempt to eke out livings under strenuous circumstances. Shooting on the cheap with non-professional actors, Baker's approach calls to mind the innovations of Iranian neorealism rather than anything in contemporary American cinema (save for the early features of Ramin Bahrani, another student of Iranian cinema). Both the Chinese deliveryman in "Take Out" and the counterfeit bag salesman in "Prince of Broadway" fully inhabit their crushing realities, while Baker's unobtrusive camera creates a documentary-like naturalism that drains the artifice from each scene. At the same time, he clearly retains a tight control over these narratives, because the emotional payoffs of their final scenes simultaneously critique conventional Hollywood endings and improve on them. Baker's movies are undoubtedly heartfelt, but they're also revelatory in their honesty about human behavior.

THE FILMS

"Four Letter Words" (2000)

Stylistically, Baker's uneven debut feature has little in common with the films that followed it, but this rowdy portrait of suburban friends reuniting for a long night of boozing and causing trouble benefits greatly from Baker's insightful screenplay. From the first scene in which one of the characters vomits all over the bathroom, "Four Letter Words" holds little back in displaying the messy compulsions of its nearly all-male cast, but it's especially notable that in between their giggling and excited talk of chasing tail they express continuous frustrations over their static lives. The movie resembles many movies but combines their tendencies into a unique equation: Baker funnels the hedonism of the "Animal House" mold into a generational portrait with roots in "Slacker" that also anticipates the satiric bent of "Harold and Kumar" while outdoing "American Pie" with a far smarter discourse on sexual politics. ("Don't put girls on a pedestal," one horny man says to another before expressing his predilection for Asian women over American ones.) The party atmosphere is merely a conduit for frank, insightful discussions about race, class and career ambitions. Everyone gets just drunk enough to say what they really think -- or at least act out their pent-up aggressions.

Criticwire grade: A-

WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? While not available online, used copies of the out-of-print DVD can be found on Amazon at low prices.

Watch the trailer below:

"Take Out" (2004)

Possibly the most devastating slice of neorealism since "The Bicycle Thief," Baker's powerful drama (co-directed by Shih-Ching Tsou) focuses on illegal Chinese immigrant Ming Ding (Charles Jang) and, like the filmmaker's previous film, takes place over the course of a single day. Separated from his wife and child by thousands of miles, Ming struggles through his thankless job while attempting to rescue himself from a punishing debt that has put his life in danger. Navigating the treacherous urban terrain on a creaky bike, he dashes from one location to the next in search of a few measly tips. Both suspenseful and sad, "Take Out" turns the city into Ming's biggest foe, with its never-ending traffic and oppressively bright colors that continually threaten to bury his plight. You'll never forget to leave a tip again.

Criticwire grade: A

WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? Kino released the film on DVD and Indiewire parent company SnagFilms has the film available in its digital library. You can watch it in its entirely below:
 

"Prince of Broadway" (2008)

Another tale of an illegal immigrant working in the fashion district, "Prince of Broadway" takes a more upbeat approach by borrowing the tried-and-true conventions of the reluctant-parenthood comedy. The suave Lucky (Prince Adu), a Ghana immigrant who works for the hustling Armenian Levon (Karren Karagulian, who surfaces in all of Baker's films), spends his days selling counterfeit merchandise to unwitting American tourists. One day, a woman he barely remembers shows up and leaves him with a two-year-old boy whom he's told is his son. Taking the adorable child home, the befuddled Lucky gets thrust into the responsibilities of fatherhood against his will, a simultaneously hilarious and unsettling process that forces him to reconsider his high-stakes profession. Baker maintains a bittersweet vibe throughout, in large part thanks to Adu's ability to remain likable in spite of his character's many flaws. The movie makes the case for why Baker should make studio films -- or, rather, why movies like "Prince of Broadway" should supplant them.

Criticwire grade: A+

WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? Netflix subscribers can watch the film in its entirely online. It is also available on DVD.

Watch the trailer below:
 

"Starlet"

Focused on a pair of women in California's San Fernando Valley, "Starlet" lacks the same emotional consistency of Baker's earlier films but nevertheless succeeds as a compelling look at the vapidity of day-to-day life and the universal desire to escape it. The story revolves around 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway), a sleepy-eyed stoner who wastes her days hanging with her roommates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone). Driving around town with her requisite Chihuahua -- whose name provides the movie's title -- Jane looks like a walking stereotype of American laziness. Her seedy profession, revealed at the beginning of the second act, only furthers this perception. (It shouldn't be a spoiler to mention it, but Baker positions it as such; curious types can figure it out with the help of a Google search.) Although the details behind her arrival in L.A. never come up, it's clear that Jane has erected a mental wall that prevents her from making progress in life. Hemingway brings enough vulnerability to the character to make her an intriguing subject, but Baker has broader aims. After nabbing a random vase at a neighborhood garage sale, Jane faces a Talmudic conundrum when she discovers that it's filled with $10,000. Does she return the money or not? She tracks down the owner, reclusive 85-year-old widow Sadie (Besedka Johnson), and, without revealing her intentions, Jane falls into a curiously supportive relationship with her. Using the same anthropological approach he brought to his previous films, Baker depicts Jane's lifestyle by stripping away its glamorous elements to peer at the reality beneath. (Read the full review from SXSW here.)

Criticwire grade: B+

WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? Music Box films releases the film in New York this Friday at the Landmark Sunshine and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Other cities will follow.

Watch the trailer below:
 

This article is related to: Filmmakers You Should Know, Features, Sean Baker, Starlet, Dree Hemingway, Prince of Broadway, Take Out, Four Letter Words, Reviews







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