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Red Rocket ★★★★

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Director: Sean Baker

Stars: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son

Release: BFI London Film Festival 2021

Following up 2017s indie darling, The Florida Project is no easy feat. Yet having already made waves with 2015’s Tangerine, director Sean Baker’s unique, coming-of-age drama earned heaps of critical praise. Five years later, Baker returns with Red Rocket, a riotous yet realistic character study that continues his streak of success. 

Mikey Saber is down on his luck. Returning to Texas with a bruised face and nowhere to stay, as he pleads on the doorstep of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), one suspects this isn’t the first time the former porn star has found himself in a bind. With an extensive resume in adult entertainment failing to convince local business owners of his employability, he finesses a gig selling weed for a neighbour; becoming a financial lifeline for Lexi as well as her mother Lil (Brenda Deis), who lives with her. 

As with The Florida Project, Red Rocket’s brilliance lies in its inspired casting. Actor, rapper, as well as one-time porn performer Simon Rex absolutely demolishes his role as Mikey. Fast-talking and dangerously charismatic; if consistently maintaining a 10/10 energy level sounds extreme – Rex is on 12. 

Sean Baker's Red Rocket

Mikey is a storyteller, armed with anecdotes ready to launch at any opportunity. Now back in his sleepy hometown, his wild LA tales documenting ungrateful costars and porn award wins draw in companions such as Lonny (Ethan Darbone), a mild-mannered neighbour who lets Mikey spew his opinions at him as the pair find reasons to drive around town idly. Another resident who finds themselves caught up in Mikey’s antics is Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old doughnut shop attendant. Mikey is instantly spellbound by the teenager. Her youth and innocence in stark contrast to his well-worn insincerity, and he becomes obsessively compelled to bask in her juvenile glow, making a series of questionable decisions in the process. Rex excels, not just in depicting Mikey’s toxic braggadocio, but in the smaller, fleeting moments where it’s clear he’s a man who pruned elements of himself a long time ago and is now a stranger to anything approaching truth.

Red Rocket once again showcases Baker’s undeniable talent for observation. Information about the social context and environment our characters exist within is bled in. Trump rallies are heard playing frequently on the TV, Lexi and Lil frequently indulge in opioids, Lil impresses upon Mikey the importance of his rent payments, ensuring Lexi doesn’t put herself in danger to go and see ‘customers’. Baker presents these dark details without feeling the need to add critique. Instead trusting the audience to have their own feelings and draw their own conclusions. He also takes this approach to the comedic elements of the film. There are a number of laugh out loud incidents that come as a result of the town’s inhabitants being exactly the ‘kind of people’ we think they are; but these jokes are never at the characters’ expense or made to punch downwards. Baker simply reflects a rural, working-class section of America and tells their stories in a way that feels authentic and without judgement. 

Red Rocket is a fascinating watch. Comprising of both humour and harsh realities, Baker gives us a central figure who is near unredeemable, yet possesses a survivor mentality that we can’t help but be enthralled by. While the narrative meanders in a way that can make the film feel longer than its 128 minutes, Baker retains a trademark style that will please those familiar with his work, with a ballsy performance by Rex making for an amusing introduction to Baker as a whole. 

Cheyenne Bunsie, Author at Movie Marker

Red Rocket (2021) – IMDb

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