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The now-defunct Donut Time, a no-frills 24-hour eatery on the Hollywood intersection of Santa Monica and Highland, was a key convergence point for the low-end sex and drug trade operating in the area in Sean Baker’s 2015 breakout, the divinely empathetic transgender girlfriend movie Tangerine. An outlet specializing in those same nutrition-free snacks, clogging America’s arteries and rotting its teeth, again plays a central role in the director’s latest down-and-dirty underclass exploration, Red Rocket.
The Donut Hole in industrial Texas City on the Gulf Coast serves as the sleazy flipside of the malt shop where Lana Turner was legendarily discovered. In this case, it yields not a glamorous movie star but a potential porn sensation in Lolita-like 17-year old cashier Raylee (incandescent newcomer Suzanna Son), known as “Strawberry” for her red hair. But Strawberry’s unlikely springboard to fame and riches is entirely secondary to the opportunity she represents to exploitative hustler Mikey, himself an adult film actor now past his expiration date and looking to transition into management.
Played by Simon Rex in a magnetic full-tilt performance of wired physicality and hyper-caffeinated loquacity, Mikey Saber, as he’s known professionally, is basically a charismatic douche, a user and a loser. It’s no accident that Baker and his regular co-writer Chris Bergoch have set Red Rocket against the casually observed backdrop of the 2016 presidential primaries. While Mikey is funny and even endearing for much of the movie with his shameless survival tactics and his compulsive lies, he’s also a wicked embodiment of the Trumpian ethos of conning people with big talk and empty promises, milking them for whatever he can get and then moving on with zero accountability. He’s part self-delusion and part calculated deceit.
That makes Baker’s new film a tougher creature to love, even if many of the same virtues of his recent successes are on glorious display — notably shaping fully lived-in performances from a cast made up predominantly of non-actors, and finding shabby poetry in an enveloping milieu that ranges from sleepy through seedy. In that latter area, Baker collaborates for the first time to great advantage with Drew Daniels, the talented cinematographer who shot Trey Edward Shults’ films, including the visually rhapsodic Waves.
Not since Baker’s early features Four Letter Words, Take Out and Prince of Broadway has he focused on a male protagonist, and that choice alone engenders less warmth toward the screwup at the center of Red Rocket. While the director and his co-writer are equally nonjudgmental about Mikey, a sourness does creep in that’s likely to make the audience less forgiving.
Baker’s films about women just have more heart. In Starlet, he riffed on a Harold and Maude-type connection between a porn actress and a lonely widow in her 80s; Tangerine was driven by the scrappy solidarity of two transgender sex workers; and The Florida Project captured the resilience and joy of a pair of 6-year-old girls living in the tawdry shadow of Walt Disney World, one of them subject to the whims of a trainwreck mother.
Mikey doesn’t entirely lack vulnerability and certainly not humor in Rex’s lively characterization. But he’s a narcissistic piece of work with no trace of redemption, seemingly learning nothing from each failure, humiliation and comeuppance. When another character’s actions inadvertently cause disaster, Mikey goes on autopilot to extract himself from the situation and ensure he remains blameless, a skill he seems to have utilized many times before.
Bruised from a beating he claims he took from two homeless guys, he arrives back in Texas City after a two-day bus journey with nothing but the grubby tank top and jeans he’s wearing and $22 in his pocket. When he turns up unannounced at the run-down suburban home of his estranged wife and former porn co-star Lexi (the terrific Bree Elrod, the cast’s only other professional actor) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss, a hoot), both of them greet him with an unwelcoming “Oh, my shit.” Mikey apparently had promised he was never going to set foot in Texas again, and they were fine with that.
Talking his way in the door to take a shower, Mikey swiftly puts down roots despite the objections of the two jaded women, who are like meth-head versions of the Edies in Grey Gardens. He promises to contribute to the rent and help out around the house, reneging on the latter offer, but making good with cash once he resumes dealing weed for local supplier Leondria (Judy Hill). She’s the mother of Mikey’s high school classmate Ernesto (Marlon Lambert) and hardass enforcer June (Brittany Rodriguez), who has his number the minute she lays eyes on him.
Being without wheels and mostly forced to get around town on a rickety bicycle (which Rex rides hilariously, like a big gangly kid), Mikey also finds an unpaid driver in Lexi’s deadbeat neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), probably the one person in town who buys his nonstop self-promotion. Mikey rattles off his credits — 2,000 movies, 6 awards, 13 nominations — like an IMDB page. There’s a winking joke embedded in the casting of Rex, whose emergence as a model, MTV VJ, film and TV actor and rapper was preceded by a handful of solo masturbation videos for an L.A. gay porn company.
In one of the magnanimous gestures that are all about drawing attention to himself, Mikey takes Lexi and Lil to the Donut Hole and encourages them to order whatever they want, on him. But it’s Strawberry that catches his eye rather than the cream-filled double-glazed. While he starts recreationally hooking up with Lexi again, which mildly softens her demeanor toward him, Mikey simultaneously launches a flirtation assault on the cashier. He immediately commodifies her as “a ginger,” which will be a key selling point with his adult film industry colleagues. The raised eyebrows of Strawberry’s boss Ms. Phan (producer Shih-Ching Tsou, who played a similar deadpan role in Tangerine) do nothing to discourage her.
Promising to help with her SAT prep, Mikey manipulates Strawberry with little resistance into dumping her quasi-boyfriend Nash (Parker Bigham), who retaliates by unleashing his thuggish parents (Brandy Kirl, Dustin “Hitman” Hart) on the usurper in one uproarious scene. He also tricks her into believing he lives in an upscale neighborhood in a fancy house he bought for his ailing mother.
A trip to Galveston and a rollercoaster ride against the candy colors of the island’s Pleasure Pier take their budding relationship to the next level. And it only takes a phone video of them having sex for Mikey to plant the idea in Strawberry’s head that she’s star material. Rex maintains a shred of ambiguity as to whether Mikey’s interest in her is anything but mercenary, though that seems doubtful.
At a little over two hours, Red Rocket suffers mildly from prolix stretches, and just like The Florida Project, it could have used some tightening. But it’s a pleasure to put yourself in Baker’s capable hands as he ambles through his loose story with its affectionate, slyly humorous character observations and immersive sense of place. In Daniels’ always-interesting widescreen frames, that latter aspect is every bit as vivid and distinctive as were his snapshots of L.A. in Starlet and Tangerine and of the Sunshine State in The Florida Project. Shooting in 16mm with special anamorphic lenses, Daniels captures the heat-saturated colors of summer sunset skies, the environmental blight of the oil refinery and the sun-parched stretches of drab suburbia.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for A24 in marketing this film will be the incontrovertible fact that it centers on a self-serving dude looking to steer a high-schooler into the sex trade — an audacious choice for the #MeToo age that many will no doubt consider counterintuitive. But Baker and Bergoch are crafty about forging allegiances among the women.
Lil might seem daffy, her brain fried by illness and drugs, but she genuinely looks out for her daughter and wants to keep her off the Craigslist flesh market. A similar bond fortifies Leondria and June, neither of whom are anybody’s fools. When Mikey, a “homeless suitcase pimp” in Lexi’s words, thinks he can shuffle out of town without paying his dues, they band together to set him straight. To quote the *NSYNC song heard multiple times in the movie, “Bye Bye Bye.”
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Simon Rex, Suzanna Son, Bree Elrod, Brenda Deiss, Ethan Darbone, Judy Hill, Brittney Rodriguez, Marlon Lambert, Parker Bigham, Brandy Kirl, Dustin “Hitman” Hart, David Maxwell
Production companies: FilmNation Entertainment, Cre Film
Director: Sean Baker
Screenwriters: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Producers: Sean Baker, Alex Coco, Samantha Quan, Alex Saks, Shih-Ching Tsou,
Executive producers: Alison Cohen, Ben Browning, Glen Basner, Jackie Shapiro, Milan Popelka
Director of photography: Drew Daniels
Production designer: Stephonik
Editor: Sean Baker
Casting: Sean Baker
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