Review: Red Rocket

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Director: Sean Baker

Stars: Simon Rex, Suzanna Son, Ethan Darbone

Houston. Dallas. Austin. These are the world-famous cities of Texas. Whatever happened, then, to Texas City? The titular metropolis of one of the most iconic states in America (for better or worse) has been subsumed by it’s more prosperous brethren. Presented here in Sean Baker’s exceptional latest, it appears as little more than an industrial waystation, stitched together via scattered communities living beneath the poverty line.

It’s no wonder Baker found appeal in a place that feels like a centreless outskirts. His cinema has given voice to fringe elements of US society. Most keenly sex workers. See his humanistic portrait of the amateur porn industry, Starlet. The transgender prostitutes gunning for their pimp in Tangerine. Halley’s constant hustle to keep afloat in The Florida Project. Now Red Rocket adds an inspired Simon Rex to this roster. He plays washed-up porn star Mikey; an unequivocally bad man recently run out of California, returning to his roots to leech off of those he’s already scorned.

Chiefly this means his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Worming his way back into their good graces, Mikey presents as a Peter Pan-type. Fifty is in sight (or maybe it just swept by in the rearview) but he’s as responsibility-averse as a teenager. Baker accentuates this sense of arrested development by having him bike around Texas City like a winsome kid. This may also go some way to explaining his predatory crush on 17-year-old donut salesgirl Strawberry (TikTok star Suzanna Son), which overtakes the picture in gloriously queasy fashion.

Mikey’s been on the hustle in his life so long he doesn’t know how to separate any situation from his need to manipulate it to his advantage. Thus his grooming of Strawberry – already distasteful – takes on a further edge of menace when he starts envisioning her as his ticket back into the porn industry. If there was a modicum of guilelessness about his infatuation it is wholly erased here. Still, Baker plays their sickly little coupling as earnestly as a romcom. Albeit one born in a trash fire.

And there is ‘com’. Plenty of it. Mikey gets himself into absurd situations with impressive frequency. If he’s not trading blows with the parents of Strawberry’s newly-dumped ex, he’s being harassed out of bed by the local dealers he’s slinging weed for.

Mikey doesn’t help himself any, but Baker does underscore the stigmatism faced by former sex workers trying to find ‘legitimate’ work. Those blanks on resumés and conservative views on such employment close plenty of doors for Mikey, and for Lexi. Red Rocket doesn’t soapbox it, but Baker is entirely sympathetic to this particular field of prejudice.

Red Rocket 2021

Indeed this is something that separates Baker from a lot of his contemporaries. Social realism in cinema is a tricky thing to balance. So many successful filmmakers herald from more privileged backgrounds. While their intent may be earnest, there’s a tendency to condescend. Despite best efforts, you get a sense of punching down. Baker exudes a unique (or almost unique) kinship to those he focuses on. Much of this comes with the casting (for which he also takes credit). Baker utilises non-actors in key roles, shortcutting to a sense of credibility that lesser directors find elusive.

And the cast is sublime. Rex feels like a live wire, and one senses him pulling parallels from his own legacy to round out Mikey’s ADHD intensity. Son takes advantage of this opportunity and sparkles as Strawberry, adding dimension to what could’ve been a simplistic Lolita-type. Elrod’s own filmography is slim, but her work here is heart-wrenchingly real, as Baker connects Lexi spiritually to Halley from The Florida Project (an incongruous drawing of Batman pinned to her refrigerator tells an entire backstory that Baker judiciously seasons; neither one of them overplaying it). And those in the peripheries work wonders, particularly mother/daughter dealers Leondria (Judy Hill) and June (Brittney Rodriguez).

Set in the summer of ’16, Red Rocket can’t help but draw parallels between Mikey and Trump, whose grift for the White House plays out in the margins of the picture. Self-serving opportunism drives both men, and therefore the movie at large starts playing as a state-of-the-nation address, pivoting all that happens into a more ambitious spectrum.

This is certainly Baker’s most adept piece of work to date. Not to besmirch previous efforts. They’re all bangers. But even the beautifully crafted The Florida Project had a small sense of the doldrums about it, occasionally struggling to fully fill it’s running time. Red Rocket passes the two hour mark, yet it’s a lived-in experience that grows richer by the minute. It doesn’t feel empty at any point. Even the horizon lines seem to speak to a particular milieu. Verdant greens are abutted by the chain-link fences of industrial plants, and smoke stacks often sit in the mid-distance behind residences. It feathers in a sense of sickly rot, framing these characters against the country’s constant need for production and wealth.

While particular to it’s specific date-stamp of August 2016, Red Rocket feels spiritually linked to another time altogether. One can imagine an alternate version of it rising up out of the Vietnam comedown of New Hollywood. Rex has the industrious energy of Jack Nicholson or Dennis Hopper during those years. Son brings to mind the firecracker gumption of young Sissy Spacek. Baker, meanwhile, secures the whole with an energy of shrewd political understanding and now feels like an outlier wrestling for a kind of great American truth amid so much frivolous gloss. Red Rocket feels like a classic, right out of the gate. And, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s similarly righteous Licorice Pizza, it ends with a note of false hope that echoes right back down the line to The Graduate.

10 of 10

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