Red Rocket: Sean Baker’s Tale of Comeuppance of Ex-Porn Star and Manipulative Loser–What You Need to Know (Cannes Fest 2021)

Sean Baker’s Red Rocket

Premise:

A middle-aged washed-up adult actor looks to settle down in a Texas hometown where few are impressed by his dubious celebrity in the director’s latest probe into America’s underbelly fringes.

The centers on a self-serving dude, manipulating a dreamy high-schooler into the sex trade.

 

Donuts and Fame

The now-defunct Donut Time, a 24-hour eatery on the Hollywood intersection of Santa Monica and Highland, was a key point for the sex and drug trade in Sean Baker’s 2015 breakout, the transgender movie Tangerine.

An outlet specializing in those same snacks again plays a central role in Red Rocket, the director’s latest down-and-dirty underclass exploration.

The Donut Hole in industrial Texas City on the Gulf Coast serves as the sleazy flipside of the malt shop where Lana Turner was legendarily discovered. It yields not a glamorous movie star but a potential porn sensation in Lolita-like 17-year old cashier Raylee (newcomer Suzanna Son), known as “Strawberry” for her red hair.

But Strawberry’s unlikely springboard to fame is secondary to the opportunity she represents to exploitative hustler Mikey, an adult film actor now past his time.

Played by Simon Rex in a magnetic performance of wired physicality, Mikey Saber, as he’s known professionally, is a user and a loser.

Socio-Economic-Political Context:

Baker and his regular co-writer Chris Bergoch have set Red Rocket against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential primaries.

While Mikey is funny and even endearing with his survival tactics and his compulsive lies, he also embodies the Trumpian ethos of conning people with big talk and empty promises, exploiting them for whatever he can get and then moving on with no accountability.

He represents both self-delusion and calculated deceit.

Baker is known for casting predominantly non-actors, and finding shabby poetry in a seedy milieu.

Baker collaborates for the first time with Drew Daniels, the cinematographer who shot Trey Edwards Shults’ films, including Waves.

Male-Dominated Cinema

Former Baker’s features, Four Letter WordsTake Out and Prince of Broadway, have focused on male protagonists, and this one is no exception

In the female-driven Starlet, he depicted the connection between a porn actress and a lonely widow in her 80s.

Tangerine was driven by the solidarity of two transgender sex workers.

The Florida Project captured the resilience and joy of two young girls living in the tawdry shadow of Walt Disney World.

Protagonist:

The director and his co-writer are nonjudgmental about Mikey. Mikey is a narcissist with no trace of redemption, learning nothing from each failure, humiliation and comeuppance.

When another character’s actions inadvertently cause disaster, Mikey goes on autopilot to extract himself from the situation and ensure he remains blameless, a skill he has utilized before.

Bruised from a beating he claims he took from homeless guys, he arrives back in Texas City after a two-day bus journey with nothing but the grubby tank top and jeans he’s wearing and $22 in his pocket.

When he turns up unannounced at the run-down suburban home of his estranged wife and former porn co-star Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), both are unhappy, as Mikey had promised to never come back to Texas again.

Mikey takes roots despite the objections of the two jaded women. He promises to contribute to the rent and help out around the house, making good with cash once he resumes dealing weed for local supplier Leondria (Judy Hill). She’s the mother of Mikey’s high school classmate Ernesto (Marlon Lambert) and enforcer June (Brittany Rodriguez).

Forced to get around town on a rickety bicycle, Mikey also finds an unpaid driver in Lexi’s deadbeat neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), who buys his nonstop self-promotion.

Mikey boasts off his credits — 2,000 movies, 6 awards, 13 nominations — like an IMDB page.

Clever Casting

The casting is clever: Rex boasts a past as a model, MTV VJ, film and TV actor and rapper was preceded by solo masturbation videos for an L.A. gay porn company.

Mikey takes Lexi and Lil to the Donut Hole and encourages them to order whatever they want, on him. But it’s Strawberry that catches his eye rather than the cream-filled double-glazed. While he starts recreationally hooking up with Lexi again, which mildly softens her demeanor toward him, Mikey simultaneously launches a flirtation assault on the cashier. He immediately commodifies her as “a ginger,” which will be a key selling point with his adult film industry colleagues.

Promising help with her SAT prep, Mikey manipulates Strawberry into dumping her quasi-boyfriend Nash (Parker Bigham), who retaliates by unleashing his thuggish parents (Brandy Kirl, Dustin “Hitman” Hart) on the usurper.

He also tricks her into believing he lives in an upscale neighborhood in a fancy house he bought for his ailing mother.

They take a trip to Galveston and a rollercoaster ride against the candy colors of the island’s Pleasure Pier. He uses a phone video of them having sex to convince Strawberry that she’s star material. Rex maintains ambiguity as to whether Mikey’s interest in her is anything but mercenary.

Cinematography:

The director shows strong sense of time and place. Daniels’ widescreen frames are as vivid as were his snapshots of L.A. in Starlet and Tangerine and of the Sunshine State in The Florida Project. Shooting in 16mm with anamorphic lenses, Daniels captures the heat-saturated colors of summer sunset skies, the environmental blight of the oil refinery and the stretches of drab suburbia.

Female Bonding

Baker and Bergoch show various forms of allegiances among the other women.

Lil might seem daffy, her brain fried by drugs, but she genuinely looks out for her daughter and wants to keep her off the flesh market.

When Mikey, a “homeless suitcase pimp” in Lexi’s words, thinks he can shuffle out of town quietly, they band together to set him straight.

Credits

Cannes Film Fest 2021 (Competition)

Cast:

Simon Rex, Suzanna Son, Bree Elrod, Brenda Deiss, Ethan Darbone, Judy Hill, Brittney Rodriguez

Director: Sean Baker

Screenplay: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch

Rating: R

Running time: 128 minutes