Directed by: Sean Baker
Premise: A washed up porn performer (Simon Rex) returns to his hometown in Texas and reunites with his estranged wife (Bree Elrod). He meets a teenage girl (Suzanna Son) and starts grooming her for the porn business.
What Works: Filmmaker Sean Baker previously directed Tangerine and The Florida Project. Those movies told stories of economic deprivation set on the margins of American society. Red Rocket is stylistically and thematically of a piece with those pictures. The film is set in a small Texas town and it has a vivid feel for its place. Like Baker’s other films, Red Rocket is often beautifully shot with the action set against neglected and dilapidated structures in well photographed rural settings. The performances fit into this background and the actors are tremendous but also unassuming and naturalistic. Simon Rex plays Mikey, a veteran of the pornographic film industry who is broke and comes crawling back to his hometown. Mikey is a compulsive liar who sees people as stepping stones but Rex plays him in a way that makes the character a credible con artist. Bree Elrod plays Mikey’s estranged wife. She was also in the business but got out and the trajectory of her relationship with Mikey is heartbreaking. The central cast is rounded out with Suzanna Son as Strawberry, a seventeen-year-old who catches Mikey’s eye. Son has a tricky role, playing a young woman who isn’t so worldly-wise but isn’t completely stupid either. Strawberry possesses a youthful naivete and a crafty ambition that make her seduction credible. Most of the rest of the cast are amateur or inexperienced actors and the filmmakers get tremendous performances out of them, in particular Ethan Darbone as the neighbor who becomes Mikey’s hanger-on. The performances and the setting make Red Rocket a palpable portrait of a community. But the film’s themes are broader. As part of the story’s backdrop, Red Rocket occurs during the 2016 presidential campaign. This is a smart use of recent history. It frames the political implications of this story but like The Florida Project, Red Rocket is a political film without becoming didactic of self-congratulatory.
What Doesn’t: Red Rocket follows a more conventional narrative than Sean Baker’s previous efforts. As a result, it is also more predictable. From the very opening in which Mikey talks his way into his wife’s home, we can sense that this isn’t going to end well for anybody and when Mikey meets Strawberry we know exactly where this is headed. The film proceeds with few surprises. The honesty and authenticity of the characters makes up for the lack of narrative turns and the ending includes a satisfying reversal that is a perfect conclusion to this story.
Bottom Line: Red Rocket is another brutal look at American culture from filmmaker Sean Baker. As hard hitting as it is, the movie is also funny and empathetic with a terrific cast bringing colorful characters to life.
Episode: #886 (January 9, 2022)