Star Rating:

Red Rocket

Director: Sean Baker

Actors: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son

Release Date: Friday 11th March 2022

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama

Running time: 130 minutes

Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is a washed-up porn actor who returns to his hometown out of desperation and cajoles his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss) to stay while he finds work. Because of his previous profession, finding regular work proves impossible but when he meets Strawberry (Suzanne Son), a 17-year old retail worker, he begins to wonder if he may have found a way back into the porn industry - with her in tow...

Some of director Sean Baker's most recognisable work has been about sex workers, so it should come as no surprise that his latest work 'Red Rocket' finds him back on this familiar territory. He has an ease with it all, and both his and the characters' relaxed attitude to their bodies, their choices, and even the moral implications of it, can take some getting used to.

What makes 'Red Rocket' so interesting to watch is undoubtedly Simon Rex's performance as the "suitcase pimp" Mikey Saber. He's an unfailingly despicable character - fast-talking, constantly on the make, always ready with an excuse for something, but he's so damn likeable that it's tough not to like him or give him the inch that he so often takes for a mile. Like 'Tangerine' or 'The Florida Project', all of the characters here are caught in the doldrums of America, far away from the unseen hills of Los Angeles that Rex's character talks about like it's heaven. The porn industry, like the oil industry that looms large in the background of nearly every shot, is a billion-dollar one yet both Simon Rex and his on-screen estranged wife Bree Elrod - both of them former porn actors in the movie - live on the fringes of society after being used up and cast aside by the industry they worked in.

Baker's use of non-actors does wonders for 'Red Rocket'. There's a real sense of urgency and authenticity in each and every performance, and both Simon Rex, Bree Elrod and Suzanne Son blend their performances naturally with non-actors so that it becomes seamless. Rex, in particular, carries the movie from start to finish and, as previously mentioned, his motormouth tendencies are meant to be annoying, but you kind of marvel at how he gets away with it all the time. Non-actor Ethan Darbone, who plays the hapless Lonnie, steals many a scene out from underneath Rex, particularly a painfully awkward sequence in a shopping mall involving stolen valour.

Ultimately, 'Red Rocket' could be read as a story of exploitation. Mikey Saber does whatever he can and utilises whatever opportunity is in front of him to get what he wants. He's the very quintessence of an Insta-ready hustler mindset. Yet, his entire gameplan in the movie to get him back into the porn industry is to turn a 17-year old girl out and become her manager. Even though she appears to be going along with it with her eyes wide open, and she seems to know what she's doing, it's undeniable that Simon Rex's character is being an absolute creep. She's 17. He's well into his thirties. She wouldn't even be allowed into a cinema to see the movie she's in. The power dynamic between them is utterly skewed, and it's just plain wrong. Despite Sean Baker's open-minded views on sex work and his devotion to removing stigma and normalising people who partake in it, you come away from 'Red Rocket' kind of sickened by it all because it seems to be reinforcing the worst opinions people have of it.

Still, 'Red Rocket' is a fascinating and entertaining movie that explores little-seen roads in America. Baker shoots with such a love for these places so that the colours pop out of the screen at every moment. The script is sharp and funny, and the characters that populate the story feel believable and are empathetic, which makes it all the more intriguing to watch. Simon Rex's central performance has been rightfully singled out as one of the best of awards season, but it's the supporting cast that really brings 'Red Rocket' higher.

You might have to leave any prudishness at the door to get on board, but 'Red Rocket' offers up a searing examination of labour, industry, and exploitation