Sean Baker, director of Tangerine and The Florida Project, has long been drawn to exploring those on the margins of society in his films, and Red Rocket is no different. Telling the story of a washed-up porn performer, Red Rocket often tests its audience limits by presenting a lead character who is in many ways unlikeable.
Simon Rex (himself a former porn actor in real life) plays Mikey Saber, who returns to his hometown of Texas City when his career in the Los Angeles adult industry dries up. With no money to his name, and nursing bruises from some former business associates, he crashes back into the life of his ex-partner Lexi (Bree Elrod), who reluctantly allows him to sleep on her couch. Mikey starts dealing weed to make some money, and becomes unnervingly interested in Strawberry (newcomer Suzanna Son) a local 17 year old girl who works at the local doughnut shop. Mikey is convinced that Strawberry will be his ticket back into the porn world, and begins grooming her to be a sort of porn protege.
Red Rocket’s cleverness comes from the way it refuses to glamourise or romanticise Mikey and Strawberry’s relationship – instead presenting Mikey as a relentless grifter who sees the people around him as a means to an end, his twitchy, would-be charisma hiding a toxic core. Think Uncut Gems relocated to smalltown dustbowl Texas and you’re nearly there. There’s a reason Baker has chosen to set the film during the run-up to the 2016 US elections – the spectre of Donald Trump looms large in this vision of the ugly truth that lurks beneath the veneer of the American Dream.