Sean Baker’s Outcast World
It is not always easy to place a recognizable actor in a film, but it is even more difficult when this actor is recognized by his “work” in a documentary. Judy Hill made a strong impression when she appeared in Roberto Minervini’s 2018 non-fiction film What will you do when the world is on fire?, who followed her and her community in the aftermath of Trump’s election and the murders of several blacks in the South in 2017. A moving portrait of people fighting for justice and peace, he also revealed the presence extraordinary that Hill naturally possesses – in the movie’s most touching and complex scene, she tearfully shares her own difficult past to help a young woman with drug addiction, and a conversation that started as a painful confession turns into an embrace. So it’s no surprise that Sean Baker chose her in his latest film, Red rocket. Known for his predilection for raw new talent, Baker contacted Hill after seeing her in Minervini’s film; Soon after, she was playing the role of a drug dealer in a movie about a stranded pornstar returning to her hometown of Texas.
As is typical of Baker’s films, the result is refreshing and eerie. The main protagonist, Mikey Saber, is played by actor and professional artist Simon Rex, who is best known for his appearances in the Horror movie franchise, its MTV tours and its alliances with the adult film industry. Although he’s an actor, he also brings real-life experience to the character. Besides Rex, however, Red rocket is populated by novices who are both themselves and a character. Hill plays Mikey’s boss, whom Mikey sells weed for, just like he had done before he left for Hollywood years before. As in Minervini’s film (and therefore in her life), she’s a businesswoman and beloved figure of her neighborhood, and her naturalism helps build the film’s uplifting and absurd tone: juxtaposed with the Mikey’s wild energy and incompetence, his ease and authenticity make Mikey seem real and yet out of the ordinary. Its presence, in both senses of the word, reinforces the suspension of disbelief.
From film to film Baker has evolved into a more narrative and entertaining cinema, but from the start he has always aimed his camera at people living on the fringes. “I think it’s a reaction to what I don’t see enough in American cinema and television, and also, it’s my way of exploring, of discovering my own country,” he said. . during a Q&A at the Viennale earlier this year. From the documentation of the immigrant experience in the years 2004 Go out to the life of New York counterfeiters Prince of broadway to produce a nuanced story centered on black trans sex workers with Mandarin, Baker achieved a level of Hollywood prestige by directing films about traditionally overlooked groups. And instead of throwing well-known faces to represent members of these groups, he relied on people who actually belong to them in real life, achieving an unusual level of authenticity in the process.
In his previous films, Baker’s use of non-actors brought him even closer to a documentary style. While Go out, about a Chinese immigrant delivering Chinese food around Manhattan, is hard to find, its making and principles are closely tied to Baker’s next film in New York City. The protagonists of Prince of broadway (2008) have all been portrayed by non-professionals, and its plot draws directly from them and their real lives. Ghanaian Lucky (Prince Adu) makes a living in New York City selling fake luxury bags and sneakers, and sees his life turned upside down when an ex-girlfriend tells him he’s the father of her child. With few means and wielding the camera himself, Baker achieves a sense of urban chaos similar to that of the Safdie brothers in Good time and Uncut Gems, but with more heart and hope for his characters. This kindness also extends to its performers: they always show the way, perhaps not mastering their destiny but at least their decisions. Realism is not obtained at the expense of the actors’ sense of themselves, but by and thanks to it.
With its unpredictability and concentration of people, New York City is a perfect setting for Baker’s experiential cinema: you hardly need a script, things just happen. This pandemonium recurs throughout Baker’s work, continuing into 2012 Starlet, in which the quieter streets of Los Angeles hide a more hidden mess. When 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway) finds $ 10,000 hidden in a thermos flask she bought at a garage sale, she decides to pay off Sadie (Besedka Johnson), the old woman who sold it to her, in every way possible, which inevitably leads to confusion. While Hemingway is an actress, Johnson was not, and the script almost only forces her to react to what her co-star is doing: Sadie has no idea why this young woman suddenly insists on leading her. at the grocery store and join her for bingo on Friday night. , and the camaraderie that settles very slowly between them appears all the more authentic as it is made of small gestures, discreet moments when Johnson lets his guard down a little and Hemingway makes his way through his world. The spectator sees a relationship evolving, in a story but also in real time.
All of Baker’s films culminate with a chaotic scene of conflict and revelation, where actors often improvise and inject their own anxiety and disorientation into their performances. Starlet Comes to a head when Jane’s broke roommate Melissa (Stella Maeve, an actress) confronts her friend about spending all the money she’s found on plane tickets for herself and Sadie, and the howling match that unfolds feels uncomfortably real. Baker’s next film and his big hit, Mandarin (2015), meanwhile, begins with a conflict, or rather with a protagonist determined to have one, and the audience awaits the impending explosion. Led by first-time actresses Mya Taylor as Alexandra and Kitana Kiki Rodrurez as Sin-Dee, the film has the quality of a dramatic Instagram Story (or series of stories), years ago. Zola. Shooting on three iPhone 5s, Baker (again the film’s cinematographer, with Radium Cheung) translates the energy and anger that animates Sin-Dee with dynamic tracking shots, diving into the scene and approaching his characters to capture their revealing facial expressions. as well as the crazy pace of Los Angeles. The lenses of the phones, paired with an anamorphic adapter, give the film a fluid, digital quality that matches the charisma and quick-wittedness of the actors, and an almost fish-eye look that helps even out the performance of the actors and cast. non-actors: They all seem to be caught together in this crazy fishbowl, spinning around each other more or less aggressively.
When the big showdown occurs, the actors and newbies all work together in a cacophony of American slang and Armenian shouting: Sin-Dee and her boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), are joined by taxi driver Razmik, portrayed by Baker regular Karren Karagulian. With his De Niro face and accent, Karagulian feels truer than the real thing, always at ease when dealing with non-professionals and subtly helping them do their best by doing his. Ransone is also a recurring actor and bases the film on his almost parody performance.
Unsurprisingly, the greatest actor Baker has ever worked with is also perhaps the least “Hollywood” performer in the industry. In 2017 The Florida project, Baker played Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the manager of a motel just outside of Walt Disney World, where low-income residents live for weeks or months at a time. Dafoe acts as the anchor of the film as he fixes faulty devices and watches over the misbehaving children who live on the premises, played by non-actors. The star of the film, Brooklynn Prince, playing Moonee, had acted before, but being only 6 years old at the time of filming, she was still natural and unaffected by years of training. Like a more modern and American version of Truffaut The 400 blows, The Florida project focuses on children and their hijinks, letting their spontaneity enrich each narrative beat. Relations between children and their parents also take center stage, most notably that between Moonee and her young mother, Halley, played by newcomer Bria Vinaite. In her scenes opposite Dafoe, Vinaite holds on and holds our attention as well as hers, and seeing Dafoe reacting with her never gets boring. Every moment is exciting.
As Baker’s films became more and more fun and had a higher production value, he maintained his awareness and interest in social reality. Red rocket continues Baker’s exploration of the lives of sex workers, especially porn actors, and studies them with curiosity and understanding. Mikey brags about his now-defunct career, because it gave him a sense of accomplishment and identity, and took him far from Texas. Forced to return to live with his ex-wife, Lexi (an exceptional Bree Elrod, whose only other merit is as a “patient” in the Shutter island), he faces another reality. Baker also continues to imbue his work with realism through his casting, not only with Rex but also with Brenda Deiss, an elderly non-actor with a gaunt physique who plays Lexi’s mother, Lil. Hiring a Hollywood actor for that part would have required a lot of makeup work, but more to the point, it just wouldn’t have worked. Deiss’s mannerisms and spaced-out demeanor make her memorable and believable. In his body and his movements, we see his story, in the same way that the unusual location of Texas City evokes a story of poverty, struggle and isolation.
Throwing real people to play versions of themselves is the opposite of relying on a method of action: there is no life experience to gain, only to channel. It also allows the professional actors that Baker chooses to do other than pretend to be who they are not; freed from the need to reinvent themselves, they can act literally and live in the moment with their co-creators, responding authentically to their personalities and drawing inspiration from them as people rather than characters. The results can be confusing and ethical questions arise, but these are just alternatives to the usual ones we have on representation and performance. Who should play the outcasts in the outcast movies? Sean Baker’s answer to this question differs from that of his peers, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.