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USA 2021
Directed by
Sean Baker
130 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Red Rocket

With his first two films, Tangerine  (2015) and The Florida Project  (2017) multi-tasking director Sean Baker (he also co-produces and edits) and his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, demarcated a territory and an approach to it that managed to be both depressingly repugnant (the territory) and empathetically engaging (the approach). Red Rocket bears a strong family resemblance to those films (in general, stories of marginalized characters eking out a living on the literal fringes of society) whilst coming dangerously close to the exploitative.  

Simon Rex plays Mikey Saber, a washed up “adult entertainment” star who returns to his hometown of Texas City, Texas. He turns up penniless on the doorstep of the home of his skanky estranged wife and former porn partner, Lexi (Bree Elrod), who lives with her aged mother (Brenda Deiss) in a run-down bungalow next to an oil refinery. After failing a number of job interviews he starts dealing weed for a neighbour, Leondria (Judy Hill). Things really start looking up when he meets a perky teen, Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who encourages him to peddle his wares to refinery workers who come to her place of employ, the Donut Hole. Mikey begins to fantasize about making a stellar return to porn with her as his, so to speak, ace in the hole. Of course we know that this is never going to happen.

Mikey is a seriously-deluded loser with enough charm to pull the wool over his victim’s eyes, such as those of his dim-witted neighbour, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), but with a chronic ADHA-like or drug-induced  inability to sustain his hair-brained scheming.  Simon Rex has been deservedly praised for his live wire performance and he makes palpable the charisma that hooks Lexi into letting him back into her home (her wizened, chain-smoking mother is not so swayed) and persuades Strawberry to believe his fantastic, albeit from our perspective, depraved, plans for their future.

This is where Red Rocket hits a snag. Baker’s previous films made good use of non-professional actors and real locations to generate a sense of a self-sustaining world apart. To introduces a character who does not appear to be a part of that world undermines the realism that is at the heart of their success.

Strawberry is, which Mikey is not, a switched-on millennial. Would she really hook up with a middle-aged, bicycle-riding blow-in’s plan to make her a porn star? The casting of Son, a freckle-faced, cherubic-looking teen, in the role only reinforces the uncertainty. From the film’s not entirely satisfactory ending one might hazard a guess that the Strawberry we see has all along been Mikey’s fantasy but this interpretation throws the rest of the film out of balance.

If Red Rocket is not entirely convincing (it has, predictably enough, won a truckload of film festival awards) Baker remains a skilled film-maker and there is still plenty to appreciate here. As editor he conjures up a freeway pile up with a simple cut and some archival footage whilst the spectre of Donald Trump is tellingly invoked in a couple of passing references and Drew Daniels’s wide-screen cinematography captures the impersonal semi-industrial locations that are all that is left of the once candy-coloured, sprinkle-covered American Dream.




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