“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it […] Now, some of those folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America.” This infamous statement may have haunted Hillary Clinton to the end of her unsuccessful presidential campaign, but it accurately represents how half of the country views the other half. Sean Baker, on the other hand, has spent his filmmaking career paying tribute to “The Other America,” and he continues to do so in his new film Red Rocket.
Baker has spent a career documenting the marginalized with his low-budget neo-realist cinema. From the transgender sex workers of California to the homeless single mothers living in Orlando, from undocumented citizens in New York to the poverty-stricken Texans of this new film, the director has always been interested in humanizing the homeless and redeeming ‘the deplorables.’ He focuses on poverty without creating ‘poverty porn,’ or the tendency in art and media to exploit the dire living conditions of real people in order to generate sympathy and manipulate emotions, which never gives the subjects any human dignity or agency outside of their characterization as “poor.”
Instead, Baker focuses explicitly on porn itself in Red Rocket. The story follows Mikey Saber, an adult film star who returns home to the women and town he abandoned 17 years prior, his face bruised and broken, spouting tall tales nobody believes. He hustles his way back into the lives of his ex-wife (whom he never officially divorced) and her mother, crashing on their couch the way he intrusively occupies a space in the viewer’s mind. After the bruises heal, he looks for work in order to help pay rent. He is the kind of person who tells a potential employer to look him up on the internet during a job interview; he has 2,000 scenes in pornographic films and 800 subscribers on his PornHub channel, after all.
What initially seems like an offbeat redemption story turns sordid as Saber begins dealing weed and obsessing over a 17-year old donut-shop employee named Strawberry who he thinks he can pimp out profitably in California. Baker is never interested in Hollywood redemption or in the kind of character development and lesson-learning most movies rely upon when dealing with ne’er-do-wells. He doesn’t make value judgments on his characters or moralize them in any way, however ‘deplorable’ they may seem. His characters smoke meth and crack, they turn tricks, their children are taken away by Child Protective Services, and they do whatever they can to survive the hands they’ve been dealt. Baker doesn’t attempt to change them or scold them, but rather simply observes them and tries to locate the dignity, beauty, suffering, and comedy in their lives.
This may be a turn-off to many viewers who prefer to endorse and support the life choices and philosophies of the characters they watch. Audiences often desire a protagonist they can relate to or at least one who embarks upon a journey of self-improvement so that, by the end of the film, the viewer feels good about the fictional people they’ve spent two hours with. However, these aren’t exactly fictional people. Most of Baker’s films feature non-actors he meets on location or throughout his life. The Florida Project starred a woman he discovered on Instagram and a child he met at a supermarket; Baker met transgender sex workers at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and cast them as the leads of Tangerine. Red Rocket features a variety of Texan locals Baker met around town– Brittney Rodriguez, recently out of work at a refinery, was walking her dog one day when the director approached her; Baker met Brenda Deiss when the woman’s car broke down and he jumped her battery.
It’s Simon Rex as former pornstar Mikey Saber, though, who is in literally every scene of the film and carries it with a kind of loquacious, scumbag charm. He nails the character’s stomach-churning combination of sweet-talking charisma and debauched deviousness, hiding his pathological lies behind puppy-dog eyes and obscuring his disgusting schemes beneath a humorous and handsome veneer. Call him a sociopath, a narcissist, a hustler, or an addict; whatever he is, he’s undoubtedly magnetic, if only to see just how much chaos he can cause.
Saber uses compliments and his body as weapons, manipulating the people around him to give him what he wants. His lonely next door neighbor has a vehicle, and Saber immediately weasels his way into the boy’s life as a means of transportation; he notices his ex-wife’s lingering love for him and abuses it for shelter and sex; he sees an attractive young girl and can only think of how he’d use her in California to reclaim his career. “She’s my way back in,” he says of Strawberry (excellently played by first-timer Suzanna Son). This girl and her relationship with Saber is definitely the most unsettling and provocative aspect of the film, testing the audience’s empathic abilities as they watch this aged predator lick his lips over fresh, young prey. It may be a disgusting Lolita situation, but it’s difficult to locate what’s love and what’s lust here, and how much Strawberry is using Saber or vice-versa. This ethical discomfort is representative of the film as a whole– funny and complex as it may be, it leaves one wanting a cold shower.
Like his other actors, Baker’s approach to Simon Rex was a strange one. He called Rex on instinct after watching some of his Vine recordings, sending him a scene from the script, and giving the actor five minutes to record an audition on his own phone. Baker offered Rex the part if he could drive over to Texas and not inform his agents and representation; the shooting was taking place in three days and Baker needed Rex to avoid quarantining. The actor hurled himself into the part with hyperactive, jittery energy, unsure of what was happening but totally trusting Baker. He is absolutely shameless and hilarious most of the time, and yet pauses enough for the audience to see the total desperation and immense fear in his visage.
Rex has had a bizarre life which perfectly textures his performance. He grew up paying the bills as a 19-year old in pornographic films like Young, Hard & Solo #3 and Hot Sessions 12 before becoming an MTV Video DJ and appearing in terrible films like Scary Movie 5. He dated Meghan Markle (now the Duchess of Sussex) and had a significant rap career as Dirty Nasty. Now, thanks to how his wild personal experiences have informed his performance here, he’s probably going to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor after winning the Los Angeles Film Critics award in the same category.
The Not So Quiet American
The world Saber inhabits is a beautifully fleshed-out slice-of-life moment in America. Baker chronicles 2016 in rural, small-town America with perfect, grainy 16mm cinematography (from Drew Daniels, who has made Trey Edward Shults’ three films look gorgeous). Capturing the petrochemical sunsets around oil refineries and the worn-down houses of aging drug users, the director infuses his usual bright color palette into the lives of marginalized people who are often portrayed in grim grays. Here, he focuses mainly on blue and red (and a splash of yellow), echoing the political subtext of the film.
Footage and recordings of Donald Trump (and the aforementioned Clinton) are heard throughout the film as characters watch the presidential election like the sordid reality television programming it turned into. Mikey rolls joints with American flag-covered rolling paper, and calls himself “a good American.” This is the world of ‘the deplorables,’ people wrongly stereotyped by elitists as backwoods, unintelligent yokels, but Baker loves his characters with all their flaws and refuses to see them as one-dimensional generalizations. He gives them vibrancy, imbuing the actors with so much humor and character and discovering the same in the non-actors. This is real life, the dance of tragedy, comedy, and banality everyone endures, where most people are never sanctified or saved.
The real world isn’t brimming with perfect Hollywood character arcs and moral transformations. People aren’t picture-perfect, and when one part of society expects another part to adhere to their definition of perfection, of what it means to be ‘American’ or ‘a good person,’ then politics and culture become brutally divided. Half of the country simply can’t be written off as ‘deplorable’ because they don’t align with the utopic dreams of the other half. The modern martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” Sean Baker is helping the world love the people around them, not the people as society wants them to be, but the people as they actually are; they are America. It’s this kind of gracious, inquisitive acceptance that makes Baker’s cinema and Red Rocket so uncomfortably vital today.