'Red Rocket' Review: Sean Baker's Big Comeback is a Wild and Satisfying Character Study [Cannes]

Sean Baker’s reputation exploded on the festival circuit with his fifth feature, 2015’s Tangerine. Shot on an iPhone, the Duplass Brothers-produced film about an L.A. subculture of transgender sex workers hanging out at a donut shop made major waves with its Sundance debut. His follow up, 2017’s Florida Project, was another fine collaboration with co-writer Chris Bergoch. It went on to win numerous awards and saw co-star Willem Dafoe gain an Oscar nomination. Baker’s latest film, Red Rocket, debuts in official competition at Cannes 2021, and explores yet another community within the underground American economy, this time dealing with dealers and former porn stars as they navigate life on the Texas gulf coast.

Set during the final stages of the 2016 presidential election, the film begins with what appears to be a shot of some far away cluster of stars. As the camera pulls out we meet Mikey (Simon Rex), the hapless hero of the tale returning to Texas City, Texas. NSync’s obnoxious earworm blares as Mikey walks the desolate streets, soon showing up at the home of his ex-wife Lexi (Bre Elrod) and her acerbic mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). There, Mikey begs for his beat-up body to have a place to shower and sleep after his long journey.

From here we slowly learn of his past, celebrated career as “Mikey Saber,” porn-star extraordinaire who’s perhaps best known for his Adult Video Award for “best oral” when he was one among a line of men being performatively pleasured by a presumably undercompensated actress. Mikey is a hustler, and after failing to adequately explain the gaps in his resume, he hits the road with his neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone, sporting a scraggly beard that itself feels like an entire American landscape) as he parlays previous experience of dealing weed for Leondria (Judy Hill), her hapless son (Marlon Lambert), and her fierce yet flawed enforcer June (Brittany Rodriguez).

Along the way Mikey encounters the fresh faced Strawberry (Suzanna Son), working at the local Donut Hole across from a refinery. Her boss, Ms. Phan (Shih-Ching Tsou, who also serves as one of Baker’s long-time producer), is bemused by the older Mikey taking up place in the shop, the only one who seems to see through his charms.

All the players in place, we’re treated to an enormously rich and satisfying character piece, feeling as much an immaculately choreographed stage play as a of-the-moment documentary. With exquisite compositions lensed by Drew Daniels, Baker is once again able to showcase the surreal beauty of some of the most blighted suburban and industrial areas of America. Echoing the likes of Jarmusch and Wenders, Baker’s eye is perfectly attuned to this collision of blackly comical blight of smokestacks and bland square buildings warmed by the warm coastal sun.

For a film that manages to be so emotionally effective and goofy at the same time, it’s a tribute to Baker’s direction and the commitment of his troupe that they allow these wild swings of tone to always feel anchored. The sex scenes — torrid yet pedestrian from ex-lovers/professional partners to the tenuous, more seductive lovemaking of a predator wooing a potential new star, even the most carnal of acts drip with both sweat and narrative intent. Like the best European films, it’s unafraid to use the power of these actions to powerfully expand our understanding of the characters, but all done so with the generally American interest in maintaining story coherence, inviting us in to the world of these individuals despite the massive differences we may hold from their quotidian woes.

The end result is a real pleasure, taking us along for a wild ride. Yes, it’s slightly too long, and Baker and his team could probably trim a bit to make things even tighter. Yet there’s so much charm at play, so much joy in watching even the moments of pain and embarrassment that it’s difficult to criticize. When Strawberry sits in her pink room in front of a dire-looking electronic piano, providing a haunting rendition of the song that began the film, it’s clear that we’re being gifted with a film that can bring tears to your eyes from both sadness, laughter, and anxiety for the travails of this motley group.

If we needed another reason to firmly declare Baker one of the most exciting American independent filmmakers if his generation, then this is the film that settles that score. It’s such a wonderful journey with these characters, and provided you allow yourself the time and space to strap in and take the journey that this remarkable filmmaker is leading you on, Red Rocket proves to be an absolute blast.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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