After rolling winners with his last two indie outings, Tangerine and The Florida Project, director Sean Baker makes it a trifecta with Red Rocket, a wild ride about a big-time male porn star who returns penniless from LA to his native Texas to figure out and regain his groove. Like Baker’s previous films, this one deals with a very specific sub-culture that is used to the max to inform the often wayward characters. A highlight of the Cannes Film Festival 2021 competition, this wayward and raunchy outing will, like Baker’s previous work, attract a following with a taste for something fresh and different.
Though shot in the Galveston area during Covid under strict conditions, plenty of bodily fluids are exchanged in this free-wheeling spree, and one of its cardinal virtues is that you never know where it’s going next. As with its predecessors, this one feels at once carefully planned dramatically and yet quite open to what the actors bring to their scenes, which is considerable. In short, it could scarcely feel more alive.
When the studly Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) walks — literally — into town, a place that looks like one of God’s afterthoughts, he’s greeted by his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law with “Why are you here?” The reason is, he’s got not a penny more than $22 in his pocket. The two women, who appear to spend their entire lives watching TV, bear some major grudges and would rather he turn around and drop into a hole somewhere, but this hustler knows how to turn on the charm and talk to women. “I’m here to help!,” he unconvincingly announces, which gains him a roof over his head for at least a little while.
From the resentment and anger people feel upon seeing him again, it couldn’t be clearer that he’s left a lot of people there in the lurch, probably both financially and emotionally. But Mikey’s got gab, a certain scuzzy charm and a huge rep as a ladies’ man (1,300 and counting), so he’s always been able to keep himself moving forward no matter what distress and detritus he’s left behind.
Even before much happens, the sense of a very specific location and cultural mindset is very intense; you can call it poor white trash (there are some Black people too), gutter dwellers or just lower class, but the ambiance envelops everything, just as it did in The Florida Project. The film features numerous interactions with locals, and it would certainly be difficult to say who in the cast are actors as opposed to locals. The evocation of place is terrific, all the more so for being so unusual, with the oil fields so often in the background spewing smoke into the air. It’s also made clear, via references to Hillary Clinton, that the action is set during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Mikey and the film finally find their purpose and motivating factor in a girl named Strawberry (newcomer Suzanna Son), a cute teenager who works in a sweets shop. The old porn star knows how to talk to any kind of female and he starts just by being friendly and forthcoming. In fact, he refrains from making any moves at all, slowly drawing the bubbly and pretty adorable young lady out so that she’ll make the first move. And that she surely does.
It’s no big surprise that she’s actually more experienced than anyone (except, no doubt, Mikey) would have imagined, and once their relationship takes off (the porn star’s skills evidently greatly surpassing anything she’s ever encountered before), Mikey begins plotting his return to Hollywood, with Strawberry as his intended star. She could not be more into it.
Baker invests the film with tremendous energy, although it never becomes frantic or overheated, and his confidence in the relatively untested Rex (aka Dirt Nasty, whose career has embraced MTV, rapping, modeling, stand-up and, evidently, some solo porn) is thoroughly rewarded. The man has tremendous energy, looks, resourcefulness and no fear of coming off like an idiot if need be, and he makes you believe that he could talk anyone into just about anything.
Like Baker’s previous work, Red Rocket feels hand-tooled, made from the ground up, enterprisingly cast and untampered with by executives or marketing types. It feels as creatively pure as a novel by a kid just out of college. May it stay that way for Baker as long as he wants it to.