It’s been a good season for surprise casting. In “Licorice Pizza,” the musician Alana Haim and the teen-ager Cooper Hoffman make their extraordinary and accomplished film débuts. In “West Side Story,” Rachel Zegler, formerly known as a YouTube performer, sings powerfully in her first film, in the starring role of Maria. And in Sean Baker’s latest film, “Red Rocket,” which opened in theatres on December 10th, Simon Rex accomplishes something perhaps even harder than appearing onscreen with no track record; he pulls a drastic career category shift. Rex, who is forty-seven, had previously worked as an MTV v.j., as a solo porn star, in supporting roles on TV shows, and in the “Scary Movie” franchise. He had done little acting of note in nearly a decade. Remarkably, Baker, who conceived “Red Rocket” many years ago, has always had Rex in mind for the leading role: a flailing porn star who returns to his home town. Baker’s intuition was spot on. Despite the actor’s lack of experience in art-house films, his performance is the highlight of “Red Rocket,” in which he appears alongside a similarly unlikely gallery of actors.
At the beginning of the film, Rex’s character, Mikey Davies (whose porn name is Mikey Saber), travels by bus from Los Angeles to Texas City, where he drops in on his estranged wife and former onscreen partner, Lexi (Bree Elrod). She is not happy to see him, but he has twenty-two dollars in his pocket and nowhere else to go, so he asks to crash with her. She grudgingly agrees, even as her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), whom she lives with, demands two hundred dollars a week in rent. Mikey looks for work locally, but he has a seventeen-year gap on his résumé, and employers are hesitant to hire him. When he admits what he’s been doing, doors slam shut. Instead, Mikey reconnects with the head of the local marijuana trade, Leondria (Judy Hill), a friend from high school, and becomes a small-time dealer. At a nearby doughnut shop, he meets a counter clerk and high-school student named Raylee (Suzanna Son), who calls herself Strawberry. She is seventeen—or, as Mikey crows, “legal as an eagle”—and he insistently pursues her. At first it’s just sex that he’s after, but then he decides to try to lure Strawberry to Los Angeles to act in porn, with him as her manager-slash-pimp. Mikey builds his relationship with Strawberry on an ever-mounting pile of deceptions, which threatens to come crashing down and get him kicked out of town before he can take her with him.
Though he comes to Lexi with his tail between his legs, wearied by the pack of woes and self-inflicted troubles that beset him in California, and promising to do better, Mikey about town is a vainglorious glad-hander, puffing out his chest with tales of stardom and quickly wearing out his tenuous welcome. Baker’s coup of casting is most apparent in the contrast between Mikey, the cheerfully arrogant has-been, and the town’s struggling residents, who’ve never gotten out and have little to show for their efforts. Most of the townspeople are played by nonprofessionals who’d never acted before. Baker—working with his wife and producer, Samantha Quan—recruited them in Texas City, encountering one at a restaurant and another from a community-college baseball team. For the role of Lexi, Baker recruited Elrod, an actress who’d stepped away from Hollywood. (Her only other role was in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.”) For Strawberry, whose potential as a performer Mikey cynically but clearly discerns, Baker cast Son, a perfect stranger whom he approached outside a movie theatre in Los Angeles and who turned out to be an aspiring actress newly arrived to pursue a career.
“Red Rocket” bears a fascinating resemblance to last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” which also used a combination of professional and nonprofessional actors. Both films are centered on protagonists, played by experienced actors, who flee to hardscrabble places, where they meet other people in even tougher straits, played by ordinary people recruited on location. Zhao and Baker elicit expressive and sharp-edged performances from these inexperienced actors, but both also render their nonprofessionals mostly indistinguishable from actors with more experience. Both movies are rooted in a documentary exploration of a particular community, but both subordinate that empirical element to the rigid lockstep of the drama.
Baker’s film suffers from this problem even more so than Zhao’s. “Red Rocket” is over-plotted, over-aestheticized, under-characterized, and under-observed. Baker shows little curiosity about the places or people in his story. The film’s picture-postcard cinematography prettifies locales, while traces of realism (local haunts, local expressions) merely decorate the movie as superficial emblems of authenticity. The nonprofessional actors have extraordinary presences, yet Baker allows little interaction at all that doesn’t seem directorially guided. He has said that he allowed actors to improvise, and the film’s soundtrack includes a couple stark solecisms that resound with a spontaneous poetry, as when Strawberry talks of an “old guy” who saw her in a video and “prepositioned” her. Leondria’s daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez) virtually bursts through the screen in her brief and confrontational scenes, and Mikey’s neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), with his floppy, needy pathos, resembles the sidelined-boyfriend character, played by Nicholas Braun, in “Zola.” Son, as Strawberry, exhibits something of the impulsive energy of Sissy Spacek in her early films, but Baker is no Terrence Malick or Robert Altman. He lets the picturesque and the quirky dominate her performance.
Baker makes sure to signal that the movie is set during the 2016 Presidential campaign. There’s a Trump campaign sign in the street and Trump’s foghorn hectoring on television broadcasts. Yet the characters say not a word about what they’re hearing or thinking about the politics of their moment. In an interview, Elrod discussed her actorly work of borrowing gestures and inflections from Deiss, a Texas City resident whom Baker cast as Lil after they met outside a porta-potty when she needed her car battery jumped. “In between takes, she would just tell us these stories about what it was like to live in the area and like, and she’s had such a hard life,” Elrod said. “And, honestly, hearing her talk about everything really was—no matter how much research I did, nothing compares to what I got from the people that I met in the community.” Baker couldn’t find any room to accommodate such storytelling. Elrod’s two sentences of description betray greater insight, greater intimacy, and greater substance than anything in the film.
“Red Rocket” is, above all, the Simon Rex show, and what he makes of it should be no surprise. Whether as a v.j. interviewing Tupac Shakur and tossing off lines of bro banter like “drama with a comma,” or as an embodiment of oblivious cheer in “Scary Movie V,” Rex conveys brazen vanity and slick insincerity. That’s not meant as a reference to the real-life Rex, whom I don’t know, but to the persona that emerges when the camera rolls; whether spontaneous or calculated, it’s a distinctive style of self-presentation. It should come as no surprise that, with his many years of camera-readiness and experience performing, he is able to embody the part of Mikey with great aplomb. The history of movies is built on such shifts. Lauren Bacall was working as a model when Howard Hawks’s wife at the time, Nancy (Slim) Keith, discovered her. Marion Morrison was a prop assistant before he became John Wayne, and Burt Lancaster was a circus performer whom a theatre producer noticed in an elevator. Richard Pryor and Adam Sandler, like many comedians, proved to have great dramatic power, as in “Blue Collar” and “Uncut Gems,” respectively. Will Smith was a rapper before he turned to acting, and Lady Gaga’s musical career led to sudden, mid-career movie stardom. But all actors, professional or otherwise, reach their greatest potential when working with great directors. Rex is no less of a discovery than Alana Haim in “Licorice Pizza,” but what Rex could do in collaboration with a director as creative as Paul Thomas Anderson remains to be seen.
Another way to put it is that anyone can act, if they’re given the opportunity to do so and are willing to make the emotional and practical commitments that it requires. If it wasn’t obvious from decades of home movies and videos and YouTube and reality TV, TikTok provides a glimpse of the oceanic reservoir of endemic amateur artistry that filmmakers can draw from. The best directors keep one eye peeled for the extraordinary—for virtuosic physical comedy, extreme theatrical craft, a trained singing voice, and other elements of hard-cultivated and precisely deployed talent—and another for the sublimity of the ordinary. What ultimately matters, though, is how directors handle either quality on film. Another recent film brings nonprofessionals together with experienced cast members to far greater effect than “Red Rocket”: “I Was a Simple Man,” directed by Christopher Makoto Yogi. That movie stars Steve Iwamoto, a retired technician who’d never acted in a movie before Yogi discovered him at a dance festival. Iwamoto appears opposite the established star Constance Wu, who had been involved with the project even before her breakout performance in “Fresh Off the Boat.” “I Was a Simple Man,” like “Licorice Pizza,” reveals the power of outsiders to expand the art of movie acting. In each case, the director seems to discover new forms and styles to fit new kinds of performers. Baker, by contrast, slots Rex and his newcomers into familiar dramatic modes and, in the process, represses their originality even as he spotlights it.
I’m reminded of a poem that has haunted me for decades: “They Were All Like Geniuses,” by Horace Gregory, which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1940. Its subject is the untapped greatness of workaday people: “The lunchroom bus boy who looked like Orson Welles,” “the Woolworth demonstration cold-cream girl / who was Garbo at a glance, only more real.” The poet wonders why, despite their imposing appearances, these people are stuck in modest circumstances and fated to live and die unrecognized by all except him and, perhaps, other wonderstruck strangers. The art of the movies is about revealing the very reality of appearance, the depth of character behind the face and the manner, the authentic genius behind the semblance of it. If Gregory had been a filmmaker rather than a poet, we might know his anonymous everyday people’s names.