128 minutes, rated MA. In selected cinemas.
The sunburnt country of Sean Baker’s Red Rocket is not Australia, but Australians may recognise the vibe. It’s the height of summer in an industrial town on the Gulf Coast of Texas, fumes from the local oil refinery wafting through acres of blue sky. Trump bellows from the TV screens, and most people seem to have at least one tattoo.
Simon Rex (Mikey Sabre) and Strawberry (Suzanna Son) in Red Rocket.Credit:
Call it hell or paradise, it’s the only home remaining for washed-up porn star Mikey Sabre (played, in an inspired piece of casting, by former model and MTV host Simon Rex, also known as the rapper “Dirt Nasty”).
After 20 years in LA, Mikey is back where he started, with few assets beyond a stash of Viagra and a gift of the gab – both of which come in handy when he shows up on the doorstep of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), who unwisely agrees to let him hang around.
Soon after, fate steps in. Behind the counter of the neighbourhood doughnut shop is a sweet little freckle-face (Susanna Son) with a slight overbite and a look of trusting mischief, who says she’s turning 18 in three weeks.
This angel from heaven calls herself “Strawberry,” and that’s how Mikey sees her, as fruit ripe for plucking – and as a ticket back to the big time, though when dropping hints about his showbiz connections he doesn’t instantly spell out which branch of the industry he means.
It’s a dodgy scenario with the dash of sweetness expected from Baker (The Florida Project), who has made a career of chronicling life on the margins, especially the sort of margin where innocence mingles with corruption.
Mikey is the ultimate sketchy dude but also a middle-aged Peter Pan who gets around town on a bicycle, trades on his puppyish good looks and brags artlessly to anyone who’ll give him the time of day.
Baker has a reputation for realism, acquired especially through his casting of non-professionals. Yet, there’s something romantic, even sentimental, in his way of framing tackiness as Pop Art. His hustler characters are larger than life yet also figures of pathos – as if ramped-up performance were their only hope of getting noticed at all.
In Red Rocket, Baker has an especially tricky needle to thread, veering towards satire while still suspending certain judgments. Mikey as an individual is plainly bad news, but what this implies about the porn industry, in general, is deliberately less clear.
Occasionally, the strain shows: not all the plot moves are convincing, and Strawberry remains something less than a fully imagined character. But equally, the film’s ambivalence is its strength – leaving us room to be seduced by its deluded anti-hero, and to share his entrancement with his sleazy American dream.
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