By: Jolie Featherstone
By beautifully capturing the stories of American communities that are rarely seen on screen, Sean Baker has the makings of a modern auteur.
In his latest film Red Rocket, Baker reunites with frequent collaborators Chris Bergoch (co-writer), Shih-Ching Tsou (producer, actor, costume design), and Stephonik (production design and set decoration). Red Rocket is a darkly humorous tale of hubris that provides a compelling look at modern America. Simon Rex (Bodied) stars as Mikey Saber, a down-and-out porn star running away from his troubles. He flees to his hometown of Texas City. Shifty-eyed, broke, and beaten black-and-blue, Mikey talks his way back into the home of his estranged wife (Bree Eldrod) and mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss). Mikey reconnects with (i.e., greases his way into the good graces of) old acquaintances. Mikey’s gift of gab has a way of lowering people’s defenses. He regales his next door neighbour’s son (Ethan Darbone) with tall tales about his life as a porn star in LA. He sells his skills to Leondria (Judy Hill) and her tough daughter, June (Brittney Rodriguez), who run a weed-selling operation throughout the town. From there, he finds his rhythm selling weed to local folks and oil workers. When Saber spots 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son) at a local donut shop, he sees her as his ticket to fame and fortune.
Red Rocket continues Baker’s process of casting both experienced actors as well as newcomers from the community in which he is filming; often creating a magical balance between these two forces. The chemistry between the performers is often earthy and raw. For the lead role of Mikey Saber, Baker cast Simon Rex (who sent his audition tape over a phone with only minutes to practice). This choice results in a wholly committed performance that completely immerses the audience in Mikey’s chaotic mission. For context, Simon Rex made a name for himself in the early 2000s as an OG internet comedian, rapper, former MTV VJ, and adult entertainment performer. Rex has already, deservedly, received critical and audience praise for his full-throttle performance as Mikey, a down-and-out porn star with delusions of grandeur and a heightened sense of entitlement. Rex gives his all to this complicated character.
A juicy and incisive look at modern American life, Red Rocket may have the most commercial appeal of Bakers’ films so far. In line with his previous work, Red Rocket is visually arresting and thought-provoking. It shakes you awake and keeps you enthralled from beginning to end. Also like his previous films, Baker and his team explore the lives of sex workers in America. It also touches on how intangible infrastructure in the US – small towns reliant on large corporations, conventions of the labour force, and confusing bureaucratic systems – often create barriers and gaps for which certain folks are left to navigate alone. Similar to the helicopter that takes off regularly next to the hotel in The Florida Project, the billowing smoke and mechanical hum of the oil behemoth that dominates the town is like a metronome that keeps time on the goings-ons of the local townspeople. The signature hum of these specific communities that becomes part of the natural pulse of the citizens’ lives.
The relationship between Mikey and Strawberry has received some discussion and I do think it’s a good discussion to have. We know that Saber is a scoundrel at best, a toxic user at worst. He is like a scuttling crustacean. We appreciate his hustling, his boundless drive to keep moving forward (even as his methods become rather Machiavellian). We can appreciate his intense hunger for self-preservation. We also know he is grooming Strawberry. We know that when Saber spots Strawberry, he sees her as a golden ticket to renew his self-esteem and his career. His relationship with her is highly intentional. Strawberry likes him, and returns his flirtations. She’s excited by Saber, and eager to experience worlds outside of her town: sex, romance, and adventure. Saber is her shepherd to these experiences and she engages him in this way fervently. However, Strawberry is still a child – so can she truly be giving informed consent to all this? She may be genuinely attracted to Mikey and enjoy their sexual escapades. She may also be attracted to the promise of adventure that he delivers. As a child being pursued by an adult man eager to show her the ways in which he desires her and how much he wants to show the world to her, Strawberry is in a vulnerable position – perhaps more so than even she realizes. I don’t know that it is always the film’s responsibility to educate audiences in this way, but I do worry about more films adding to the mound of stories of the wanton young girl absorbed in her older man. Certainly Red Rocket is much more critical of the adult in this story than most films of this category are.
The film is enthralling, exciting, and yet also asks us to hunker down and spend time with characters that we may not have much compassion for. In Baker’s earlier films (Tangerine and The Florida Project), we learn about and become comfortable with Sin-Dee and Alexandra, and Moonee and her crew of friends respectively. We come to feel a loving empathy and kinship towards these characters. In Red Rocket, redemption is not on the table. And it’s uncomfortable, or at least unusual, to engage in active understanding for characters who do not ultimately redeem themselves. In Mikey’s case, he continuously makes self-serving choices. Though his choices do lead to repercussions, we sense that Mikey may always find a way to pick himself up and pull through (somewhat) unscathed. Baker, I sense, intentionally brings us characters or situations that may make us uncomfortable. There is learning in the discomfort. Baker’s cinematic eye leads us to this learning in ways both sensitive and intuitive. Baker’s cinema is a cinema of humanity, in all of its grime and glory.
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Jolie Featherstone: @TOFilmFiles