PARIS •It is already the fairy tale of this year's Oscars race: A little film about homeless children living in the shadow of Walt Disney World in Florida that threatens to turn the tables on big-budget favourites.
Director Sean Baker, who shot his last film on an iPhone, has scored a surprise hit with the gritty yet heartwarming The Florida Project. It has been showered with prizes by American critics and has made best-of lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Driven by the remarkable performances Baker drew from Bria Vinaite as a tattooed single mother living hand-to-mouth in a motel with her seven-year-old daughter (Brooklynn Prince), the film has picked up steam since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
"I am happy for my actors," Baker said, "because they deserve it, but I try not to take anything too seriously."
The director, who was partly inspired by the rascally spirit of the Our Gang street kid comedy films, which were popular during the Great Depression of the 1930s, added: "It is not why I made the film."
Baker went to live in a budget hotel along the Kissimmee strip to see for himself how people struggle to make ends meet within sight of the theme park billed as The Happiest Place On Earth.
"I am drawn to these kinds of stories, the other side of the American Dream - those that are left behind," he said.
"You have this population living in budget hotels underneath signs trying to sell a dream to tourists, yet the people living there cannot afford the things being pushed into their faces."
In this lurid landscape of gun shops, ice-cream parlours and chain restaurants, the film's child heroes play, hustle and cause havoc, frequently testing the patience of the motel's long-suffering manager, played by Willem Dafoe.
Baker shot the film at the bright purple Magic Castle motel in Kissimmee, using mostly amateur actors and the hotel's residents and passing tourists as extras.
"I wanted a real environment and I wanted the community to be involved," he said.
He even found one of his child stars - the remarkable Valeria Cotto, then five - in a nearby Target superstore. "I gave my card to her mother and I remember the look on her face. She obviously was very suspicious because my cards have my dogs on them. I will have to change that," he said with a laugh.
Like his acclaimed breakthrough movie Tangerine (2015), a life-affirming portrait of a transgender sex worker which he shot on a phone, The Florida Project has been praised for the subtlety of its storytelling.
Its authentic feel had one American journalist asking Baker, 46, "how I got Dafoe to be in my documentary".