Sean Baker is quickly establishing himself as one of the finest filmmakers in America today. With Starlet, Tangerine and The Florida Project, he has already displayed a precise and empathetic eye for those living the hardscrabble life at the skuzzy end of the American Dream.
Baker’s latest, Red Rocket, tells the story of Mikey (Simon Rex), a down-on-his luck male porn star who returns to his hometown in Texas to lick his wounds. With extreme reluctance, his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) takes him in on the promise he will do some of the chores and pay rent. He’s all likeable persuasiveness, trying to charm Lexi’s mother (Brenda Deiss) and show her he’s turned over a new leaf. He’s soon cycling about the brown belt of his neighbourhood where oil refineries belch and an emergency warning system is tested every now and then.
Mikey befriends his next-door neighbour Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), partly to get rides in his car and partly to bask in a ready audience for his boasts of former glory and future plans. He finally starts to make some cash selling weed for a local dealer (Judy Hill). Things begin to look decidedly up when he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a fresh-faced teenager working at a doughnut store, who he quickly begins to flirt with and groom as his ticket back into the adult entertainment industry.
Baker and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch are adept at creating realistic and vivid portraits of life lived in poverty without falling for the miserablist cliches. Mikey, or to give him his full porn alias ‘Mikey Sabre’, is unabashedly out for himself, a con man who has Strawberry drop him off in a nice neighborhood before grabbing his bike and cycling back to Lexi’s. But everyone is wheeling and dealing. Lonnie dresses up as a veteran to sell flags at the mall, even though he already has a ‘Stolen Valour’ conviction and whose scrawny build makes him the least-likely marine ever. Lexi is a sex worker scoring hooks up via Craigslist and shares a drug habit with her mum (because the doctor halved her mother’s meds). The 2016 presidential election campaign prattles on irrelevantly from radios and TVs, but everyone is just trying to do what they can to get by.
At the center of the film is Rex’s extraordinary performance. His Mikey is a man-child, a shopworn Huckleberry Finn who enjoys biking leisurely through the peach-coloured twilights of Drew Daniels’ cinematography. He’s a man whose charm wears increasingly thin as he regains the composure of potential success, even though his hubris means that another dip in fortunes is all too probable. His seduction and potential exploitation of Strawberry is countered by the fact that Strawberry is an intelligent young woman whose yearning to get away is perfectly understandable.
Ultimately, Red Rocket withholds judgement of its characters and the idea of porn as a career path out of poverty is neither romanticised nor demonised. It’s just a possible solution which, like drug dealing or voting for Donald Trump, has its inevitable downsides. Most importantly, Red Rocket is a humane comedy, a portrait of romantic douchebaggery and an America of flailing last chances.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty