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Red Rocket
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Coming Home"
4 stars

My guess is that as soon as I begin to describe the plot of “Red Rocket,” the latest from Sean Baker, his first film since the acclaimed “The Florida Project,” a number of you will dismiss it entirely with some combination of anger and disgust. Trust me, I get it and I will admit that when I first heard the premise, I had difficulty seeing how it could possibly work as anything other as a calculated bit of outrage—the sort of thing that John Waters did early on in his career as a way of garnering attention for his no-budget opuses. However, those who are determined to bail on it run the risk of missing one of the year’s more audacious comedies—a quietly scathing social satire that introduces us to one of the more appalling characters to be found at the center of any recent film and somehow figures out how to make him—you had to guess it was a him—compelling enough to spend two hours watching in a theater when you would not only step out of the ordering line at a coffee shop if he stood behind you in real life, you would be tempted to give the drink up for good just to make sure that such an encounter would never happen again.

The guy in question is Mike (Simon Rex), a guy who left his small Texas town years to seek fame and fortune out West, eventually becoming a porn star under the name of Mikey Saber. That was a while ago, however, and as the film opens, he is pretty much washed up in the industry and heading back to his hometown. It should be noted that he is not particularly ashamed of his past and indeed brags about five Adult Video News awards as though they actually conferred some genuine class and status upon him—a notion that is especially laughable when you learn exactly how he earned some of those prizes. The general reaction to his return is best exemplified when he turns up on the porch of the house where his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) lives with her mother and he tries to wheedle into being allowed to crash on her couch—not only is she less than thrilled to see him, she has to remind to remind them that they are technically still married.

That said, Mike’s sleazoid charm still has some kind of effect because not only does he eventually convince her to take him back into her home and eventually her bed, he is able to coax the town’s local marijuana dealer (Judy Hill) to give him some pot to sell. Using a local donut shop as a front, he is soon selling to employees at a nearby refinery and is making enough to help pay his own way with Lexi. And yet, he continues to cling to his vague fame as an adult film performer and that comes to a head, so to speak, when he meets Raylee (Suzanna Son), an employee at the donut shop that he immediately fixates on as his possible ticket back into the porn industry. He flirts with her, gets high with her and slowly begins the process of talking her into his big plans for them. That is icky enough, of course, but to make things even more potentially appalling, Raylee is still only 17—not that this bit of information is going to stop him at all.

If “Red Rocket” were a tough and uncompromising drama about a guy in his forties trying to groom a teenager into sex work, it would no doubt raise any number of hackles among the kind of viewers who tend to confuse the depiction of an act with an endorsement. To depict the events in more blatantly comedic terms and without any of the expected overt moralizing seems like a recipe for full-on disaster—this, after all, is a time when a film like “Licorice Pizza,” which depicts the friendship that develops between a brash 15-year-old kid and a woman a decade older than him, is being denounced in some quarters for allegedly endorsing pedophilia by people who clearly have not seen it. Just the description alone is enough to make you want to take one of those “Silkwood” showers for about a week.

In other words, “Red Rocket” is the kind of delicate cinematic high-wire act where even the slightest misstep could send the whole thing crashing to the ground and one of the most impressive things about it is to see how Baker manages to keep from stumbling throughout. He clearly knows that Mike is a self-absorbed scumbag who has no real interest in anything that doesn’t specifically involve him—a point underlined by the story being set during the summer of 2016 with news reports of the ongoing presidential election cycle occasionally playing in the background—and never tries to present some kind of backstory or explanation for his behavior that might make him come across as slightly more sympathetic. Instead, he assumes that viewers will be able to find the situations that Mike gets into amusing while at the same time recognizing just how repellent he is. (As in both “The Florida Project” and his earlier “Tangerine,” Baker’s approach to the sex industry and its workers is refreshingly non-judgmental.) As for the potentially touchy aspect of Raylee being only 17, the screenplay by Baker and Chris Bergoch wisely resists the urge to position her strictly as a victim—she has her own sense of agency, is amused and not especially damaged by her encounters with Mike and on some level seems to recognize that he is handing her a line of bullshit. At the same time, the film does not let Mike or viewers off the hook for the tactics he employs to try to seduce her into his plans, the same kind of objectification that one can readily find in other and more ostensibly palatable aspects of everyday life.

There are plenty of reasons why the film works—the incisive and knowledgable screenplay, Baker’s keen ability at evoking a genuine sense of community, the generous way in which the members of the supporting cast are allowed to shine in ways that make you think that entire films could be spun off of their characters—but the key element to the success of “Red Rocket” is the performance by Simon Rex as Mike. Some of you may recall Rex from his brief pop culture heyday a decade or so ago when he served as an MTV VJ and then appeared in a couple of sitcoms and some of the later entries in the “Scary Movie” franchise. Others of you may recall that before all that, he also made ends meet by appearing in a handful of pornographic films. Obviously his unique backstory proves to be a keen fit for the character that he is playing here but that is only one of the reasons why it works so well. He effortlessly taps into the irreverent spirit that Baker is going for but at the same time is able to tap into something darker and more serious as well so that he never allows us to forget Mike’s essential creepiness. The result is one of the year’s very best and most fascinating performances.

Considering the fact that it is a film with a male porn star at its center, it is perhaps ironic that the one major flaw with “Red Rocket” is its length—it clocks in at 128 minutes and there are some moments, especially in the middle stretch, where it does tend to meander. However, considering Baker’s other achievements on display here, he can be forgiven for being a little indulgent in this regard. This is the kind of film that the late, great Jonathan Demme used to make back in the day—an offbeat slice of Americana that is smart, funny and uncannily observant in regards to how people live and interact. Because of the subject matter, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea but more adventurous viewers who do not require that the films that they see only involve likable people doing worthwhile things for the benefit of others should find it to be a strange delight. And if your musical tastes run to the boy-band heyday of the early 2000s, you should known that after seeing this film, you will never be able to listen to N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” in quite the same way again.

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originally posted: 12/18/21 00:42:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 New York Film Festival For more in the 2021 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION:2021 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2021 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.

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  10-Dec-2021 (R)
  DVD: 15-Mar-2022



Directed by
  Sean Baker

Written by
  Sean Baker
  Chris Bergoch

  Simon Rex
  Ethan Darbone
  Bree Elrod
  Suzanna Son

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