Texas City in Galveston County, Texas, in the summer of 2016. Mikey Saber (Simon Rex)—or Mike Davies, as he’d rather not be called—lopes off a greyhound bus into the broiling heat, covered in facial bruises, his possessions only a stale, dirt-caked sports bag thrown over his shoulder. This is no triumphant Odyssean homecoming, a prodigal son welcomed into the bosom of redemption. He is trouble: all devilishly good-looking male-model cheekbones and taut physique, whose real desire to please induces nothing but suffering to others and himself. This is his latest rodeo.
As a Sean Baker protagonist, he’s actually a slight anomaly, although this is still a very Bakeresque milieu. Whereas his past work threw ingenuous, warm-hearted individuals into hostile worlds (festooned always in bright cinematography and decor), here the first-billed on the cast list is the monster. Or the hero of his own life, and deliverer of others, in his own mind.
Following from Starlet, this is another deep-digging immersion into the world of American pornography, and a subtler success of Red Rocket is how Baker hasn’t followed the siren call of careerism that beckons forth talented, burgeoning filmmakers in the US. He has been offered bigger-scale genre films; he could’ve done HBO. More like his heroes in British social realism, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, he has opted to stay and explore his own patch, without exponentially rising budgets, engendering a richer sense of his craft and integrity.
The initial situation Mikey finds himself in—starting with the imperative of a stable roof over his head—is knottier and more complex than it looks, a credit to Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch’s original screenplay. His first port of call is the modest home of his separated wife Lexi (Bree Elrod, a professional actor in her first major film role)—this being Texas, a bungalow amply sized and surrounded by grass, with road concrete on all sides. Lexi has a past with Mikey in the LA adult film industry, but made sticks for home faster than he did. She and her ineffectual, caring elderly mother let him stay, but their trust is doubled-down when he starts generating income selling pot (still illegal for recreational use in the state) and spreads the wealth their way.
These shysters abundant in the adult industry—where more ethical, co-operative ways of doing business have been growing over the past decade—see opportunities, things to capitalize on, as vultures smell prey. One morning, Mikey finds himself in a donut shop, served by Raylee, or as she’d rather be known, Strawberry (newcomer Suzanna Son). He can’t believe his eyes, and he does the thinking on her immature mind’s behalf that the glamor of sex work in LA is preferable to this middle-American dump. Mikey begins a grooming process with Strawberry—who is knowing, somewhat, and sees a mutually beneficial opportunity here too—that will last the rest of the film. In his ambitions, he’ll be her personal manager and set the adult film world ablaze once again.
This world, the non-Los Angeles breeding ground of the porn industry, is authentically evoked by Baker, who is research-intensive when preparing new work—minus one element. It’s plausible that Strawberry is onboard with the transactional nature of her relationship with Mikey, that she is maybe playing dumb, so to use him as a stepping stone and then discard him. But aspects of her eyelash-fluttering, dimple-cheeked performance, and definitely her characterization, err to the realm of male, wet-dream fantasy—she’s exactly what Mikey sees (and wants) from women, but another writer would probably add another element of complication or depth, enlightening us of her own personhood and existential scope.
This is something of a “hot potato” film, thus its publicity campaign has revealed only what it is needed, led with strong reviews out of Cannes, as opposed to trailers and imagery that could be blown up and misinterpreted on social media. Baker himself, almost apologetically, has conceded that this is will be a “triggering” film, a red rocket flag to a bull on both sides of the political spectrum (Trump’s election victory is not overstated in the film, but it’s there). He is sensitive to the fact that adults can and maybe should enjoy pornography and, at heart, the labor of that industry deserves as much or more respect than other forms of work. He carefully straddles over the does-depiction-equal-endorsement question. But for something so embedded with ideas and volatile associations, maybe Mikey and Strawberry’s story deserves less of a fairy tale hue.
Red Rocket premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released by A24 this fall.