Reviews by Joyce Glasser Red Rocket (March 11, 2022) Certificate 18, 131 mins
The best films, like the best novels, are remembered for their characters and sense of place, which is perhaps why so many films are adapted from novels today. However, the original screenplay category is not an endangered species, thanks in part to American co-writer-director Sean Baker and writer Chris Bergoch, whose last three films, Starlet, tangerineand The Florida Projectcatapulted her into the limelight (with an Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe), if not quite into the mainstream.
You say you can’t go home, but 40’s former pornstar Mikey “Sabre” Davies (comedian, rapper, ex-MTV VJ, Simon Rex) is wracked with despair. He’s returning to Texas City, Texas, from LA after a seventeen-year absence looking like the washed-up bum that he is, with bruises on his face and his sweaty shirt on his back.
Tall, well built and fit, his tan has transformed his handsome face into resilient skin he can take on the world with. Mikey approaches a ramshackle bungalow on the outskirts of town where his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), lives with her protective, badass mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss).
Mikey approaches the house cautiously: even he knows he’s destroyed too many bridges and upset too many people to be welcomed with open arms. The long persuasion process is a breeze, and Elrod (one of the few professional actresses in the film) emerges from this scene as a worthy nominee for Best Supporting Actress. Lil doesn’t trust Mikey, but they eventually agree on a deal that if Mikey gets a job, he can stay on the couch so he can help pay for the rent and expenses.
Forgetting to put his pants on and crossing Lil in the tiny house might be funny, but his relationship with Lexi isn’t. Mikey uses his charisma, positivity, and expenses to get back into Lexi’s bed and build her hope for a normal life.
While all Bergoch Baker films have a political dimension, it remains very subtle, if only in the choice of outsiders whose lives we share for the duration of the films. Red Rocket is a departure beginning with Mikey’s job hunt and continuing with a TV clip of Donald Trump’s attempts to discredit Hillary Clinton.
Presentable and charming enough, Mikey is trying to get a job, but with a 25-year gap on his resume, there are no prospects. When he admits to a potential employer that he’s spent those 25 years in the adult film industry, they decide they can’t hire him.
This Catch 22 situation leads him to the backyard of marijuana dealer Leondria (Judy Hill), where she and her fearsome, no-nonsense daughter June (Brittney Rodriquez) reluctantly give him his old job back. They’re suspicious that he’ll smoke the pot himself (which he does), but if he makes the money, he’ll be out of parole. The only condition is that he doesn’t sell to the builders (which he does).
To celebrate his new job and paying his rent in advance, he takes Lexi and Lil to the Do-Nut Hole. Mikey doesn’t eat junk food, but Lexi wants to sit at a table and sample the variety on offer and make the most of the treat. However, Mikey soon becomes distracted by her waitress, Strawberry (local discovery, Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old college student with strawberry-colored hair and a pretty, innocent face. He returns on his bike to meet her. When he finds out Strawberry isn’t as innocent as she looks, Mikey has visions of returning to Los Angeles with his new starlet.
But first he needs to save money for the trip. Realizing that the Do-Nut Hole is a meeting place for the factory workers, he ignores Leondria’s condition and finds simple customers while he can spend time with Strawberry.
In Texas City, Texas, Baker, who eschews studios for places he finds himself, couldn’t believe his luck when he stumbled upon The Do-Nut Hole, one of those Ed Ruscha symbols of the American street that stands out in its stark functionalism haunting or a modern Edward Hopper cafe; framed by the huge industrial towers of Texas City’s oil refinery and petrochemical production complexes. The crowning glory is Strawberry’s suburban tract house, which transforms Baker’s magical 16mm camera into a fairytale cottage symbolizing Mikey’s delusional belief in the American dream. It’s a house that Mikey, who has come full circle, is staring at with desperate hope and a prayer, just as he was staring at Lexi’s house in the first scene.
Trump’s television clips signal that we are in 2016, and we are in the state that gave Trump a whopping 36 electoral votes, his largest number given the state’s size. We realize that none of the poorly educated characters in the film have a job or a real job, except for Strawberry, who is paid minimum wage. Another character we meet is Lexi’s neighbor Lonnie (Ethon Darbone), a sad sack half Mikey’s age who makes a living at the mall by pretending to be a war veteran and at the generosity of the patriotic public counts. Mikey takes one ride too many with Lonnie, who is impressed by Mikey’s movie star status and pays the price.
While Baker might not have intended the film to be a snapshot of the nation Trump never made great again, that image lingers in the background. In his films, Baker’s protagonists are flawed characters who live on the fringes of society but do their best when the cards are against them. They’re harmless – if they harm anyone, it’s themselves – and they win our hearts.
The mistake Baker is making here is asking us to show Mikey more goodwill than he deserves and we can stomach. Simon Rex tries hard to keep us on his side, but his character is a narcissistic con man, a taker who doesn’t know how to give. If this sounds like a product of Donald Trump’s America, Mikey has probably never voted in his life. But as he demonstrates in the Lonnie subplot and might end up ruining another life, he drifts without a moral compass. We cheer for all of Baker’s characters, but this time he’s asking too much of us.
Sean Baker once again enchants America’s marginalized, with a political dimension that elevates the film to metaphor.
Source link Sean Baker once again enchants America’s marginalized, with a political dimension that elevates the film to metaphor.