Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2021. Cre Film, FilmNation Entertainment. Screenplay by Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch. Cinematography by Drew Daniels. Produced by Sean Baker, Alex Coco, Samantha Quan, Alex Saks, Shih-Ching Tsou. Production Design by Stephonik. Costume Design by Shih-Ching Tsou. Film Editing by Sean Baker.
Sean Baker once again manages to present a portrait of characters in freefall that is painful, funny, tragic and beautiful all at the same time. This time his focus is on Mikey (Simon Rex), a burned out, mid-forties former porn star who has left Los Angeles with nothing but the tank top on his back and arrives in his dusty Gulf Coast town of Texas City looking to start again. He has trouble working his way back into his ex-wife’s house but manages to pull it off after a lot of big talk and begging, promising to find a job and help pay the rent but unable to do so when it turns out that twenty years with only adult films on a resume can’t even land you a gig as a waiter. Instead, he turns to dealing pot and quickly turns a tidy profit, the vibe in his house improving with both his ex-wife (Bree Elrod), who begins to let him back into her bed, and his mother-in-law (first-time film actor (Brenda Deiss, whose character could have stepped right out of Sordid Lives), who has her reservations but is happy to see him pay their rent.
A friendly visit to the local donut shop puts our hero in the way of the high school teenager working behind the cash register, a pretty redhead who goes by the name of Strawberry (Suzanna Son) and with whom he becomes immediately entranced. Coming up with any excuse to leave the house and head to the shop, Mikey eventually woos the girl into his arms and she is up for the adventure, letting him deal to her customers at work before enjoying sex with him in her pickup truck.
Mikey also spends time with his neighbour Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), who is starstruck by his old friend’s porn career and listens to him unravel his big plans for bouncing himself back into the big time, as Mikey believes that his relationship with Strawberry is an opportunity to get back into the business once he convinces her to be his new discovery.
Baker doesn’t soften the ugly aspects of the story in any way, Mikey’s relationship with Strawberry is textbook grooming regardless of the younger character’s rebellious teenage willingness to engage in naughty activities with him, but rather than play up to any noble morality tales about good versus evil, Baker couches Mikey’s failures in a humorous foolishness that sees the character setting himself up for an increasingly dire comeuppance the more he shoots his mouth off with his big plans or rationalizations for his most self-indulgent behaviour.
Rex, whose own appearance in (solo) adult films has tarnished his reputation in the past, is mesmerizing in the lead role, his command of Mikey’s diarrhetic double-speak reveals depths of emotional extremes that he has never had the opportunity to display before; just as captivating is his appearance, that crispy tan clings to a still impressive physique that is, without a doubt, still very attractive, but even his muscles have a clownishly desperate need for approval that makes the character very funny even at his least sympathetic. Watching Mikey chase his hubris until the inevitable happens (by way of a magnificent Judy Hill as his boss) is a fascinating experience that Baker highlights with his familiar command of photographic richness, delivering as much ornate camera work in the family’s crumbling little house as he does the Edward Scissorhands-level perfection of Strawberry’s home or the neon lights of arcades, strip clubs and oil refineries.
Cannes Film Festival: In Competition