Sean Baker

Aftersun

24/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Writer/director Charlotte Wells’s debut feature arrives in UK cinemas, virtually creaking beneath the wait of a whole series of prestigious award nominations. It’s easy to see what influenced those who bestow such accolades. Aftersun is far more experimental than the average British independent; indeed, at times I’m put in mind of the work of American genius, Sean Baker, which is intended as a compliment. This sad, lyrical little film, set in the late 90s, follows the misadventures of a young father and his eleven-year-old daughter as they attempt to bond on a package holiday to Turkey.

Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio) arrive at their hotel in the dead of night to a series of familiar disasters. Paul has asked for two beds in their room and there’s only one. Furthermore, in daylight, the resort resembles a building site with hammers and drills providing an intrusive soundtrack to those seeking a relaxing day’s sunbathing. But the two of them are here for a holiday and that’s exactly what they’re going to have.

As the languorous days unfold, it becomes apparent that not everything is quite as it should be. We learn early on that Paul is divorced from Sophie’s mother and that she has started a relationship with someone else. Paul seems sanguine about it, though on phone calls home, he still tells his ex-wife that he loves her. And there are some unanswered questions. Why does Paul have a plaster cast on his arm when he arrives? And why is he so vague when Sophie asks him how it happened?

The film unfolds like a series of half-remembered experiences, which makes perfect sense when we are offered scenes of a grown up Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), now a mother herself, looking back on the events of that trip and trying to piece the experience together. Cinematographer Gregory Oke makes everything look ephemeral, often choosing to depict scenes as reflections on a TV screen or in a hotel room mirror, sometimes offering us half-obscured images that don’t tell the whole story. Much of the action is captured as playbacks on Paul’s modest little video camera.

Mescal is terrific but it’s Corio who really knocks it out of the park, nailing the insecurity and apprehension of a young girl at a difficult age, just beginning to experience a growing interest in the teenage boys who hang about the resort. In the skies, a parade of colourful hang gliders often appear to be just out of Sophie’s reach, offering her some kind of escape. But Paul keeps telling her she’s too young to try them out…

This is a gorgeous film, sweetly sad and tinged with tragedy and is as ambitious a first feature as I’ve seen in a very long while. Wells surely has a bright future ahead of her but, for now, Aftersun is a pretty impressive start.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Red Rocket

12/03/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The Florida Project was one of the undoubted cinematic highlights of 2017. Director Sean Baker’s ability to depict working-class American life is his real strength. No matter how wretched his characters, no matter how squalid their existences, he somehow manages to invest them with an innate nobility, finding the true characters hiding beneath the masks they show to the world.

Red Rocket continues in that vein, following the misadventures of one Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), former porn star, now down on his luck. Carrying the cuts and bruises of a recent business ‘disagreement,’ he arrives in his former hometown of Texas City with no car, no luggage and only twenty-two dollars to his name. He wastes no time but walks directly to the home of his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), who now lives with her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss). Neither of them is pleased to have him turn up unannounced on their doorstep, but Mikey pleads with them and eventually gets permission to sleep on their sofa ‘just for a few nights.’

Once in, he starts to wear them down, his first objective to get off that sofa and into his wife’s double bed. At first, he goes everywhere on Lexi’s borrowed bike, but soon begins to exploit his local ‘celeb’ status, starting with impressionable next-door neighbour, Lonnie (Ethan Darbonne), who quickly accepts the role of Mikey’s unpaid chauffeur. After some doomed attempts to find honest work, Mikey enlists with local drug queenpin, Leondria (Judy Hill), selling dope and steadily accruing the funds he needs to relaunch his stalled career.

And then, he visits local coffee shop, The Donut Hole, where he meets seventeen year old ‘Strawberry’ (Suzanna Son), a sparky young waitress who’s drawn to Mikey’s glamorous swagger and outsider status. He is instantly smitten too, not by love, but by the idea of a hot business opportunity. Surely he can act as Strawberry’s manager and launch her as the porn industry’s hottest new star? Would that be a way back in?

As you will have gathered, Mikey is an utterly detestable creep and I really ought to be hissing him off the screen, but, as played by Rex (himself a former porn star), he radiates so much charm and charisma that I absolutely understand how so many people are taken in by him. Here is a man always on the lookout for an opportunity to help himself to whatever’s available, who thinks nothing of dumping on those who have put their trust in him. It’s surely no accident that the television screens repeatedly reference a certain Donald Trump – proof positive that, in America, a shameless liar really can can make it to the top of the tree.

Red Rocket is built around an extraordinary performance from Rex – he is simply outstanding in the central role. Son too is fabulous as the naive teenager he’s so callously grooming. But there are some people who can see through Mikey’s charms. Leondria’s hard-bitten daughter, June (Brittany Rodriguez), recognises him instantly for what he is – and makes no secret of the fact that she distrusts him.

Baker’s film, despite a running time of over two hours, never puts a foot wrong. His cast of characters are brilliantly explored and (as in The Florida Project) he even makes the grotty urban landscapes of Texas City look vibrant and – especially at night – shimmering with possibility.

Catch this on the big screen if you can. It’s a must-see.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Florida Project

11/11/17

The Florida Project is my favourite film of the year so far – and there are only a few weeks left of 2017 for any new contenders to knock it off its perch. It’s a real gem: imagine Ken Loach Does Disney and you won’t be far off.

In fact, though, it’s Sean Baker exposing the tragic underbelly of the Magic Kingdom and, if this is anything to go by, the forty-six-year-old writer-director has an important career ahead of him, chronicling the travails of the American poor, living precariously in motels, lurching from one inadequate paycheck to the next.

There is real beauty in this film: Brooklynn Prince, as six-year-old Moonee, is an absolute delight, all swagger and daring, as cheeky and charming as it’s possible to be. She feels real, a happy, confident kid, who knows she’s loved and cared for, and doesn’t worry about much. Because her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), might be living on the edge – struggling to find work, doing whatever she has to in order to pay the rent – but she never once lets Moonee down. She’s there for her, always, ensuring Moonee is fed and bathed, enjoying life. She’s a textbook problem parent – jobless, feckless, dabbling in drugs and prostitution – but this film shows us how wrong the textbook is.

It’s heartbreaking though; no one should have to live as uncertainly as this, especially not in the world’s richest country. Disney World’s looming presence, just out of reach, serves as a not-so-subtle metaphor: we see the glitz and glamour of the phony castle, while the squalid truth lurks just beneath. At least Halley’s found them a decent motel, with a caring manager called Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who keeps the place clean and tidy, and respects the residents. But they’re still living in one room, forced to participate in the farce of ‘moving out’ once a month so that they don’t accrue any rights as residents. They’re still eating food delivered by a charity, all cheap sugary carbs, presumably stale and out of date.

The cinematography is striking: the overwhelming impression is of cheeriness and colour. This is Moonee’s world and, free for the summer from the confines of school, she owns it, roaming freely and playing host to new motel guest, Jancy (Valeria Cotto), who’s staying with her grandmother (Josie Olivo), while her own mom ‘sorts herself out.’ Jancy’s grandma provides an oasis of calm: she has things very much sorted out; she might be poor and living in a motel, but she cooks proper food and is hot on discipline. Almost everyone here is decent, really, looking out for each other, doing their best. It’s a warm-hearted and affectionate depiction of those who are often disparaged. It’s also a searing damnation of a system that lets its people down, and its shattering conclusion is utterly devastating. Baker is clearly a film-maker with a lot to say – and he says it very well.

5 stars

Susan Singfield