In the America of 2021, the dream is no longer to get a middle-class corporate job that pays enough to support a family, buy a house in the suburbs, and stay at that company until you get a gold watch at your retirement party as a reward for decades of loyal service. The dream is now to hustle 18 hours a day, seven days a week, stringing together a series of freelance gigs and side hustles with no safety net or health insurance—all for the dubious honor of “being your own boss.”
With the ubiquity of “#hustleculture” in contemporary America, it was inevitable that the grind would make its way into cinema. Films reflect the culture in which they were made, after all. And in 2021, a year where the future was more unstable than ever, two films distributed by A24 held a mirror to America through the purest manifestation of the capitalist bargain: sex work.
Both of the main characters in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket and Janicza Bravo’s Zola are hustlers who know how to make a buck. They’re at different places in their lives: Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is a washed-up porn star, while Zola (Taylour Paige) gets by on a combination of tips from her waitressing job and doing guest spots at strip clubs. But both speak the transactional language of sex work fluently; each respective film has a scene where the protagonist advises a more naive character that they should be charging more for their services. And both are as American as they come.
Of the two films, Zola is told from a more subjective point of view, filtered through the conventions of the social media platform where A’Ziah “Zola” King’s story was first told. Zola started off as a 148-tweet thread whose viral popularity eventually led to a movie deal, and Bravo adds stylistic flourishes—onscreen screenshots, the cheerful whistle of a sent tweet—that keep the film rooted in its digital origins. King’s fictionalized proxy is a born marketer who retakes selfies until she gets just the right angle for Instagram.
Zola is a sympathetic narrator, a character whose reactions to the chaos around her reassure the audience that yes, this story is out of control. (Riley Keough’s performance as Zola’s unhinged “friend” Stefani got most of the attention, but Paige’s reaction shots are award-worthy as well.) Early on, Bravo establishes that Zola has her shit together and Stefani does not with one shot over the top of a bathroom stall. Both women stop to pee at a gas station, and as Bravo pans over them wiping, we see that Zola’s urine is clear (hydrated) and Stefani’s is dark yellow (dehydrated).
Someone who’s very aware of her personal brand, Zola asks herself before she steps out onto the stage, “Who you gonna be tonight, Zola?” She has a stripper pole in her house, practices diligently, markets herself online, and knows what she’s worth. She’s set up to succeed in the gig economy. But she does have limits, and like an office worker whose 9-5 job slowly drifts into a 9-9, those boundaries are continually pushed. Zola is savvy, but she’s working within a coercive system where there’s no room for even the smallest mistake.
But she can take care of herself. Zola saves its pity for Derrek (Nicolas Braun), Stefani’s hapless boyfriend, the clear sucker in this situation who gets taken advantage of not only by the people he knows and trusts but by strangers who smell a mark. Zola is a comedy, but it takes place in a cutthroat world where sex is power, power is money, money is sex, and trust is for suckers.
This same attitude runs through Baker’s Red Rocket, whose protagonist, Mikey, is the embodiment of the merciless late capitalist ethos. In Mikey’s world, either you’re the one who’s fucking, or the one who’s getting fucked. In his relationships with women, this dynamic is literal—he uses sex to ingratiate himself with his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), when his options in L.A. finally run out. That is, until something better comes along. That’s when his tactics go from pathetic to sinister, shifting into an abusive pattern of gaslighting and grooming that affects both Lexi and local teenager Strawberry (Suzanna Son), on whom Mikey pins his hopes of reviving his fortunes.
Over the course of this 128-minute film, it becomes obvious that Mikey, a white man who takes anything he wants and doesn’t even consider the possibility of feeling bad about it, isn’t just an adult performer—at least, not recently. He’s fallen into the parasitic world of being a pimp, running a trio of “model houses” he rents out to sex workers in exchange for a cut of their earnings. And he’s perfectly willing to take advantage of men as well: Just look at Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), this film’s Derrek, the poor bastard who makes the mistake of taking people at their word.
Mikey lives on the fringes of society. (It’s doubtful he’s ever paid taxes, for example.) But had he been born into, say, a wealthy New York family and not next to an oil refinery in Texas City, the same sweaty-palmed desperation and manipulative doublespeak that make him so despicable would also make him a “successful businessman” like Donald Trump, who hovers conspicuously in the background of Red Rocket.
Mikey tries to wiggle his way out of every commitment he ever makes. He takes credit for the achievements of others, never admits his mistakes, and brags about his successes. He knows all the right buzzwords—at one point he drops references to Pornhub, click rates, “a coffeeshop in the Valley,” and Instagram, all in the same breath. Whether he really knows what they mean is open to debate. It’s unclear whether he’s an incompetent idiot or a calculating predator, but he does have the ability to work hard when he wants to. (He’s quite successful at selling weed to local dancers and hardhats, for example.) No matter what, what’s important is that he wins.
Both Baker’s and Bravo’s films give us satisfying conclusions to these characters’ arcs. Mikey and Zola get what they deserve, whether that be humiliation or begrudging respect. As their narratives spin out of control, stylistic flourishes emphasize the surreal nature of their dilemmas, but both stay anchored in one harsh reality: In contemporary America, the one thing you don’t want to be is the gazelle at the back of the herd.