The American porn industry has been largely ignored by its more respectable film-making counterpart. Movies that have touched on the subject have mostly been derisive comedies, such as “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (2008), or semi-nostalgic throwbacks to an earlier era, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997). A few films have taken up a feminist argument that the business is inherently abusive and exploitative.
A notable exception is the work of Sean Baker, who has spent his career chronicling the margins of American society. He is fascinated by the industry, he says, and its role in the “underground economy”; he also seeks to empathise with people who are often dismissed, ignored or ridiculed. His film “Starlet” (2012) revolved around an unlikely friendship between a porn actress and a widow. “Tangerine” (2015), his breakout work, followed a transgender sex worker. His most mainstream film, “The Florida Project” (2017), was about a single mother turning to prostitution in order to pay the rent at the motel where she and her young daughter live. “The depiction of sex work has never been quite fair. There’s such a stigma around that livelihood,” Mr Baker says. But by “telling human stories with universal themes” it is possible to humanise those involved.
In “The Florida Project” the mother’s means of income was clear, but in the background. In “Red Rocket” Mr Baker places a down-on-his luck male porn star, Mikey Saber, played by Simon Rex (pictured), front and centre. Mikey is based on men the director met while researching the porn industry for his earlier films. “On the surface these are charming, witty guys, so I was finding myself laughing with them and having fun, and then afterwards thinking back to what they said and feeling very conflicted,” Mr Baker says. “That’s the kind of mindset I wanted to put the audience in. I still wanted to have the audience conflicted for this guy, rooting for him and the next moment wanting his comeuppance.”
The story begins as Mikey returns to his hometown in Texas having burned his bridges in Los Angeles. Reluctantly taken in by his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), Mikey is soon dealing drugs to pay the rent. He meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son, pictured), a fresh-faced teenager, and immediately starts to groom her as his ticket back into the adult-entertainment industry. Mr Baker sees the situation as complex: Strawberry is desperate to escape her small town but the porn industry is an answer that begets more questions. “Female talent often has a much shorter career span,” the film-maker says. “They’re in some ways chewed up and spat out by the industry”, and then have to deal with the prejudice that society “has against their line of work when they exit”.
All Mr Baker’s films avoid the miserabilist clichés common to the “social problem” movie. “Red Rocket”, in particular, is very funny and occasionally, and surprisingly, poignant. Mikey is a man-child, a shopworn Huckleberry Finn whose charm is fading, but who also enjoys riding his bicycle through peach-coloured twilights (the bike is the “Red Rocket” of the title). All his relationships are transactional, and he’s on the make, but so is everybody else. His next-door neighbour Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) impersonates a veteran to sell flags at the mall, and Lexi is a sex worker, scoring hookups via Craigslist. The presidential election campaign of 2016 can be heard on radios and televisions in the background, suggesting that America itself is in murky water. “I’m very careful as a writer to never get too analytical about anything because once it’s a direct allegory it gets preachy and boring,” says Mr Baker.
As in his other films, in “Red Rocket” the characters are pursuing their own scrappy version of the American dream. As this film-maker sees it, sex work is still work—banal and funny, boring and occasionally dangerous. It is neither romanticised nor demonised. “I don’t condone or condemn,” Mr Baker says. “I just present it.” ■
“Red Rocket” is released in America on December 3rd and will be released in Britain in March