One of the most interesting aspects of Sean Baker filmmaking is his ability to achieve his unique vision in circumstances that other, less staunch filmmakers would consider disadvantages. Baker (Starlet, Tangerine, The Florida Project) routinely takes creative decisions that others would never make, let alone incorporate them into her visual style and approach to filmmaking. From working with aspiring actors (or non-actors at all) to Verité-style filming on location (Tangerine was shot exclusively on iPhones), Baker’s films always contain a sense of visceral reality that sets them apart. The filmmaker’s style and all of his signature choices come into their own in Red Rocket, Baker’s latest film starring Simon Rex, which is both captivating and slightly off-putting. The result, though perhaps not as poignant as the Oscar-nominated The Florida Project, is more than worth seeing, a modern exploration of hectic pace and opportunism.
Rex is Mikey, an articulate charmer who made a name for himself as an adult movie star in Los Angeles. But he’s out of luck, out of work and back to his hometown in Texas, where his first stop is his wife’s house. Right, Mikey has been away for years and fucked other women on camera, but he has a wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), at home who still lives with her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss). It takes a bit of persuasion, but Lexi finally lets Mikey back in the house (and eventually her bed) as he finds a way to make a living after his entertainment career is over. After convincing Leondria (Judy Hill), the local pot dealer, to give him some inventory to sell on, he asks his unemployed neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) to take him to the various strip clubs around town for his Sales. It is a life.
Looking for new customers, Mikey ends up in a donut shop outside a power station where all union workers take their breaks. Believing he is going to commit murder with them, he gets more than he expected when he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the cute young clerk who calls him. She is seventeen, has large, innocent eyes and a confident demeanor that Mikey is immediately drawn to. This is where it gets interesting, because Mikey’s interest is real. It’s also a little creepy and predatory. Mikey never does anything obvious to Strawberry, and she is just as invested in their relationship, which is becoming sexual, as he is. But Mikey is always looking for a point of view, and soon he’s thinking about what a pretty young thing like Strawberry could do in his former industry and plans to convince her to move back to LA with him.
As the central character of Red Rocket, Mikey is never entirely lovable and never a villain. He’s that weird duck that you don’t see often enough in movies, a complex person with flaws and needs, someone with motivations that are not always honorable, but by no means illegal or immoral. His ambition puts him in some interesting situations, from confronting Strawberry’s teenage boyfriend (and the family who are defending him) to having unexpectedly deep conversations with Leondria’s partner June (Brittney Rodriguez). But he’s a man who knows how to get what he wants, and he’s not afraid to charm or flatter to get it. In fact, all of his charm and caress is basically a matter of course for him at this point, his usual course of action in planning his way through life. Rex perfectly manages this balance, can be anything the situation calls for – flirting with Strawberry, a frustrated husband held back by Lexi, a businessman with a vision with Lonnie.
In true Baker fashion, the non-actors surrounding Rex just elevate the process, from Lil’s natural comedic timing to Leondria’s no-nonsense performance. Suzanna Son can more than assert herself next to Rex and embodies this peculiar moment in the life of a young woman when she is no longer a child, not yet a grown woman, but is nevertheless fully capable of attracting a man’s attention. Filmed in the heat of the summer in Texas, Baker takes advantage of the wide sky and the vast landscapes and gives the film strong, bright colors that glow from the screen. While the script (co-written by Chris Bergoch) loses some of its momentum in the film’s final twenty minutes, there’s enough between Rex’s strong performance and Baker’s ever-compelling filmmaking to make Red Rocket an enjoyable ride.
Red Rocket is now playing in select cinemas.
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