Nick is a bouncer at a trendy nightclub in New York City. One night, he rescues a beautiful transgender performer named Nomi in her dressing room from some thug who is coming on to her rather forcefully. Nick comes her to rescue and is almost immediately hired to serve as her bodyguard and confidant. Soon afterward she embarks on a tour and he accompanies her. She takes him to Los Angeles, Mexico City, Greece, and along the way she shops for him and almost grooms him to becoming as dashing a bodyguard as she is a performer. Along the way, he sees the kind of life she enjoys living with transitory friends and fans, booze and drugs. The problem is that he is beginning to like her quite a lot.
Haymaker is a film that desperately needed to be made for here we have a transgender performer, played by transgender performer/actress Nomi Ruiz, and this is barely mentioned only twice. In fact, it’s not so much mentioned as it is implied. The rest of the time we are seeing precisely who we are supposed to be seeing; a beautiful performer. The fact that she is transgender is irrelevant to the movie. As positive statements go you cannot ask for a better form of representation.
For years I’ve been saying that there is a wealth of talent in the world of independent films and Haymaker is no exception. Written, directed by, and starring Nick Sasso as Nomi’s bodyguard Nick, here he proves himself to be a true renaissance man. Actors who direct themselves can sometimes lose themselves in their acting performance, but not with Sasso. He keeps his character understated and bottled up, almost as if there is something that he is trying to keep locked down. This gives him a wonderful intensity that percolates as his character sees Nomi flirting with other men. On the other side, we have Nomi Ruiz as our performer Nomi, who is still relatively new to the world of acting and Haymaker is her first feature film role. And yet, she doesn’t come off as stiff or inexperienced as an actress on the screen. Throughout the movie, her acting feels natural and almost conversational. She also sparkles in every scene she’s in. Ruiz was born to be a performer, both as a singer and as an actress, and the dynamic between Ruiz and Sasso is practically palpable.
From a filmmaking point of view, there were plenty of moments when I forgot I was watching an indie film. The cinematography here by Brent Johnson is so strong that it felt like the camera shots and angles were painting each scene. When the story was in New York the colors popped off the screen, but the picture had a quality that almost felt gritty. When the movie changes location to Los Angeles there was both a smoothness to the images as well as being dazzling. Again, Johnson used interesting camera angles to highlight the right amount of tension as well as use slow close-ups and panning as if the camera was his paintbrush. Lastly, the editing, again done by Sasso, had a tightness to it that kept the story moving along at the appropriate speed for each scene. Sasso actually found a way to use editing to serve at times as the exposition for the film.
If I had any reservations is that at one point the story became a bit murky after Nick and Nomi go their separate ways. However, the most remarkable thing about Haymaker isn’t the story per se, but rather a subtext that comes to fruition at the end. There is a message about finding happiness. Nomi thinks she finds it by surrounding herself with her adoring fans and partying all night long. Nick, on the other hand, thinks he finds it by suddenly returning to the world Muay Thai fighting. Instead, the message here is about living your life with dignity and that everyone is worthy and deserving of finding love. That is something that Nick and Nomi discover with each other.
For its approach by taking a transgender character and making it a non-issue, for its wonderful acting, for its beautiful direction and cinematography, I give Haymaker 4.5 out of 5 Stars.