Red Rocket


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Red Rocket
"The grooming of Strawberry may have some moments of levity but that, in many ways, makes it all the more uncomfortable." | Photo: Drew Daniels/Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

Sean Baker is interested in the fringes, whether it was the street worker intensity of his iPhone-shot Tangerine or the marginalised denizens of the Magic Castle motel in The Florida Project. He makes these spaces thrum with vibrant life - often zooming in on what some would describe as 'low life', although he never treats them like that. This time out, he's crafted a bittersweet character study of porn star hustler Mikey Saber (played by MTV's Dirt Nasty, Simon Rex - who even did a couple of adult films at the start of his career). Rex just won a Spirit Award for this performance and it's easy to see why, he plays Mikey as a motormouth grifter who has returned to his hometown after things in LA have gone sour and we meet him as he's trying to inveigle the way back into the life of his not-quite-ex wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mum Lil (Brenda Deiss).

Talking a mile a minute and with high expectations, he also starts grooming a teenage employee Raylee (Suzanna Son) of the local Donut Hole, whose nickname, Strawberry, is just ready made for the porn industry, in his opinion. He also forges a quasi-friendship with the no-hoper next door (Ethan Darbone), whose car proves handy for getting him from a to be when he's not riding back and forth in front of Texas City's belching industry on a push bike. Baker and Rex work as a team, making Mikey's casual exploitation of everyone around him deplorable but allowing him to retain just enough charm to see how he often gets away with it and just pathetic enough to retain an ounce of sympathy. In case this doesn't remind you of anyone, Donald Trump - jaundiced by an old screen - pops up on TV here in the run-up to the 2016 election, Rex's man-child, often exploitative behaviour a mirror of sorts to the former president.

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The grooming of Strawberry may have some moments of levity but that, in many ways, makes it all the more uncomfortable. It might not, on the surface, be as serious as the treatment a similar subject gets in Palm Trees And Power Lines but Baker is smuggling in the same set of tough questions for the audience beneath the veil of humour - about how easy it is for a guy like Mikey to keep on trucking and how appealing his version of snake oil could be for a kid who's looking to get out of her current environment.

Son - who, like the vast majority of his players, was cast by Baker while he was out and about rather than through an auditions process - has the sort of open screen presence of Support The Girls star Haley Lu Richardson and Amy Adams, her smile like the sun coming out from behind a cloud and, even though some of the choices Strawberry might be making are less than perfect, there's a sense she sees Mikey's game and could, potentially, beat him at it on some level at least. Baker's ambiguity - particularly in the film's final moments - may not be for everyone but that's life, Baker suggests, full of open endings and the potential for things to go either way.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2022
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A washed-up ex-porn star tries to get his life back together in his hometown, sparking trouble for those in his orbit.
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Director: Sean Baker

Writer: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch

Starring: Simon Rex, Suzanna Son, Bree Elrod, Brenda Deiss, Ethan Darbone

Year: 2021

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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