Red Rocket (2021)

One of the most anticipated films to come out of last year’s Cannes Film Festival was Sean Baker’s latest feature, Red Rocket. The film follows Mikey Davies (Simon Rex), who has returned to his hometown of Texas City after his career in the porn industry has come to a standstill. When he meets 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son), at a local donut shop where she works, Mikey is determined to groom her into becoming the next big name in porn. Red Rocket received a standing ovation at Cannes and became a critical and commercial success as expected from Baker’s films, while establishing Baker as a true visionary who seeks to place the spotlight on outcasts and their stories, especially those who work in the sex industry. From the opening credits that show off the industrial background while NSYNC’s track “Bye Bye Bye” plays to the closing shot of Strawberry in the bikini in her doorway, Red Rocket is another brilliant entry in Baker’s filmography.

The film is directed by Sean Baker who cowrote the screenplay with writing partner, Chris Bergoch. As expected from Sean Baker’s films, Red Rocket sheds life on another perspective within the sex industry as Mikey is a former porn star who tries to settle down into “normal” life and struggles when potential employers learn of his previous profession. Like his other projects, Baker’s focus is on a select few characters and explores Mikey and Strawberry as the former has been involved in the porn industry for years before while the latter is toying with the idea of entering the industry. The film is far grittier and has even darker undertones than Tangerine and The Florida Project thanks to the controversial age gap that had many critics and moviegoers talking about as Mikey is in his 40s while Strawberry is only 17 and still in high school. However, Baker and Bergoch do not glorify Mikey or his actions, which is clear from the get-go as he turns up at his ex-wife’s house broke and bruised.

Simon Rex leads the cast as former porn star, Mikey Davies who has returned home to Texas following the downfall of his career. Providing one of the most uncomfortable yet brilliant performances of the year, Rex’s turn as Mikey has many layers that can be interpreted in different ways depending on the viewer. On the surface, he seems excited and optimistic about the future, especially after his encounter with high school senior, Strawberry, and the prospect that she could be the next big thing in the porn industry. On the other hand, Mikey’s actions can be construed as manipulative and deceptive as he will do anything to get what he wants in an extremely controlling manner. Once his gaze is fixated on Strawberry, he does everything he can to control each aspect of her life beginning with the breakup of her relationship with her high school boyfriend through to convincing her that the porn industry is the right path for her. Mikey is a deeply disturbing and flawed character, but this is what makes the film captivating to watch and it’s thanks to Rex’s fearless approach to the character. It’s no surprise that Rex won an Independent Spirit Award for his troubles.

It’s always exciting when an actor seems to breakthrough out of nowhere and one of this year’s big breakouts is Suzanna Son who is magnetic as high schooler, Strawberry. Strawberry’s character is the catalyst for the events that happen in the film as her encounter with Mikey inspires the latter to pursue a career as a talent scout in the porn industry. Red Rocket has garnered controversy due to the aforementioned age gap, but on watching the film, Mikey’s position as a controlling manipulator is evident as he puts himself in the centre of Strawberry’s life to groom her into entering the porn industry. This means that she doesn’t really have a say, even if it may seem like she does. Son fills Strawberry with plenty of ambition and dreams that seem to be bigger than the small town she lives in.

The cinematography is provided by Drew Daniels who manages to find the magic in the Texan setting. The opening shot sees Mikey return to Texas City and the industrial influence is clear as the bus makes its way past a slew of power plants. Mikey’s ex-wife’s house is by contrast, a small patch of green that sits near to these power plants, while Strawberry lives in a small town nearby that is far away from the power plants and has a beautiful lake at the bottom of her back garden. Despite the limited locations that have become signature in Sean Baker’s films, Daniels manages to show the contrast between Mikey and Strawberry’s backgrounds simply from the environments where they live.

Red Rocket will definitely prove to be uncomfortable viewing for some thanks to the large age gap between the two main characters, but Baker doesn’t necessarily glorify the age gap as Mikey is clearly a flawed and charismatic individual who has a penchant for controlling and manipulating those around him. While the film may not be on the same level as Baker’s previous effort, The Florida Project, Red Rocket is another worthy addition to his filmography and proof of his ability to tell stories that are often overlooked or ignored.

What did you think of Red Rocket? Let me know in the comments below!

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