Sebastián Silva has suicide on the brain in “Rotting in the Sun,” his eighth directorial feature and one in which he also plays himself. Sebastián is living in Mexico City, running out of money, addicted to ketamine, and bereft of creative ideas. But he faces a new, potentially soul-eroding opportunity when flippant gay internet persona and content creator Jordan Firstman enters the frame. Firstman also plays himself in a performance that interrogates his image as a contemporary queer icon while also mocking it — in ways self-aware and also not — in this raunchy, sexually explicit lambasting of gay male life whose target audience will both revile and revere this film.
“Rotting in the Sun” begins with Sebastián sitting at a public fountain in the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, googling “how to kill yourself in Mexico.” His dog, Chima, is eating a pile of fresh human shit off the ground. Sebastian is meanwhile reading E. M. Cioran’s philosophy text “The Trouble with Being Born,” which argues that birth, not death, is the ultimate “laughable accident” but that any attempt at suicide is already too belated.
Even if you’re not familiar with this book, the text adds to the gloom of nihilism cast over Sebastián’s life — and in a movie that eventually turns out to be more joyful than the director may like to admit. Sebastián, in the movie and in actuality, lives not far from the Plaza, here in a building run by his friend Mateo. Sebastián hasn’t made a feature film in four years and is spinning his wheels with network pitches while barely eking out a living as a painter. “Being poor and an artist? That’s disgusting,” Mateo tells him. Mateo’s other piece of advice after repeatedly walking in on Sebastián doing bumps of ketamine (“Every gay man does ketamine,” a character says later) is that he should just go to Zicatela and kill himself.
Zicatela is a straight beach along Mexico’s Puerto Escondido, and here is a largely fictionalized but based on an actual queer secret space in Oaxaca, likely Zipolite, where men suck and fuck and sunbathe and revel openly in the nude. Sebastián, leaving Chima with his super’s housekeeper Vero (Catalina Saavedra), heads to the beach where he hopes to end it all. One possibility is pentobarbital, a sedative that promises a swift, clean getaway. At Zicatela, Gabriel Diaz’s camera is documentary-style abrasive, bobbing from one uncut penis to another and zipping through a cascade of sun-baked orgies. Sebastián wades out into the water to attempt to kill himself, only to find another gay beachgoer drowning, and they drag each other back to shore.
It turns out to be Jordan Firstman, who by some stroke of kismet, happened to watch Silva’s film “Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus” literally the night before. (The drowning is fiction, but Firstman really did watch that 2013 Chilean movie on a Grindr date the night before he met Silva.) Hirsute, pierced, totally naked, and effusively chatty, Firstman almost instantly launches into a pitch for the misanthropic filmmaker, who’s still catching his breath from a near-death incident: a series called “You Are Me,” about Firstman’s life and his relationship to his social media followers. Silva, meanwhile, has no idea who or what he is, and that was true in reality when the filmmaker and comedian first met.
Firstman has so much joie de vivre that it’s difficult to anticipate what kind of chemistry he’d have with the misanthropic, death-wishing Sebastián. But there is something intoxicating about Firstman for the filmmaker, even if the comedian has just posted to Instagram a story of Sebastián railing three lines of ketamine. Hanging up his suicide attempts, Sebastián returns to Mexico City, where Firstman repeatedly harasses him on FaceTime to accept the project, which Sebastián thinks is vapid, shallow, and narcissistic. These are all criticisms that have likely been flung at the real Jordan Firstman, and we’re inclined to think of them ourselves after Firstman’s initial pitch. But is a suicidal, drug-addled, out-of-work artist who reads fatalistic philosophy texts really that much deeper than a cocky, oversharing content creator?
That’s one of the central fissures of queer life that Silva and his co-screenwriter Pedro Peirano smartly crack here: Those of us on the Sebastián end of the spectrum are envious of those on Firstman’s end, and possibly vice versa. And whichever way you fall, you’re likely to end up hating yourself at some point. Sebastián ultimately submits to Jordan’s demands to collaborate on “You Are Me,” which plays like gangbusters when Sebastián pulls it out of his ass and name-drops him during an HBO pitch meeting initially going awry. (“Yes, I see how a show about a disease that kills only men would need to have a female director.”)
Yet from here, the movie jackknives with a gasp-eliciting twist that yanks Sebastián out of the movie, leaving Jordan Firstman, who arrives in Mexico City from Zicatela, to track down his whereabouts. He’d be wise to start with Vero (Saavedra, who worked with Silva on “The Maid,” is an uneasy presence and a master of a poker face on the verge of bursting), who sees all. But first, ketamine.
“Rotting in the Sun” has a very low-budget, glue-gun-and-paper-clips quality that lends charmingly well to the movie’s punk, DIY style of filmmaking. Most of the extras and cast are people in Silva’s life or non-actors or passersby he picked up off the street or the beach. And because of the movie’s layered meta-sensibility, it’s possible to feel, up to a point, like this is all really happening. That’s until the movie veers, like Silva’s Brooklyn-set pregnancy drama “Nasty Baby,” into thriller territory.
Firstman has had roles on the series “Search Party” (which he also wrote for) and “Ms. Marvel” and most recently in the Netflix film “You People.” “Rotting in the Sun,” however, should prove an indie breakout moment for the fledgling. Firstman’s character (or whatever you want to call it) is often exhausting to be around — extremely, how do you say, extra. (A hilarious little detail sees Firstman wearing Melania Trump’s “I Don’t Really Care, Do U?” Zara jacket.) But the unexpectedly heartbreaking final scene, as well as Firstman’s reckoning over Sebastián’s suspicious disappearance, shows him capable of a self-reflection deeper than just reflecting upon himself.
The screenplay, perhaps not helped by the meandering vérité filmmaking style, spins in circles in the second half, struggling to reclaim the economic pacing, nimble jump-cut editing, and wildly sexual antics of the first half. You almost wish there was a little more magic, but that’s maybe because some of the truths Silva comes up close to are so skin-crawlingly real that you want to cover them up. Scenes in which Sebastián or Jordan scroll through their own internet content with empty eyes are a pungent reminder of the, at times, inherent vapidity of gay life, the thirst for someone else’s approval or body to quell what’s missing inside us. Basically, any queer person knows that being queer is often about feeling bad, and Silva isn’t afraid to drive that nail in when it’s not all a trip to the beach.
“Rotting in the Sun” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.