director: sean baker (the florida project)
starring: simon rex, suzanna son, bree elrod, and shih-ching tsou
REVIEWER: lyall carter
Mikey Saber is a washed-up porn star who returns to his small Texas hometown, not that anyone really wants him back.
As a teenager I used to frequent my local boutique cinema as much as the local multiplex. There I discovered and grew a passion for arthouse cinema; stories from far flung countries, with dialogue spoken in more than just English and tales that weren’t polished Hollywood blockbusters but diamonds of the roughest kind. Red Rocket is one such film. Although Red Rocket has moments of great storytelling and humanity, the filmmakers narrative and character choices to not prosecute their protagonist’s bad behavior leaves a very bad taste in the mouth.
Mikey Saber is a washed-up former porn star who returns to his hometown in Texas City to crash on the couch of his estranged wife Lexi and her mother Lil. While he tries to make an honest living, nobody will hire him due to his porn career. He ends up selling weed and later meets a teenager named Strawberry, with whom he becomes attracted to. Believing that Strawberry is the key to him getting back into the porn industry, Mikey sets out to convince her to leave it all behind and join him in LA.
Apart from a slightly bloated midsection, narratively Red Rocket is fairly sound in its execution. There are some moments of black comedic gold, a superb naturalistic performance from Simon Rex in the lead role, and some terrific cinematography that turns the industrial wasteland setting into a place of beauty.
The real problem that I had with Red Rocket is with the crux of the story. Having screwed up his version of the American dream Mikey sees Strawberry as his key to get back into the porn industry. At nearly eighteen Strawberry isn’t a minor and clearly gives consent. But it's in the filmmakers narrative and character choices to neither condemn or critique the middle aged male protagonist’s borderline obsession with a girl that he’s essentially seeking to groom to pimp out for his own benefit that's a bit beyond the pale for me.
Working in the social work sector I understand first hand that life for some can be horrific. But I also believe that story tellers, whatever medium they use, have a social responsibility as well. Having an uncritiqued pimp as your hero seems to be the exact opposite of that.
Although Red Rocket has moments of great storytelling and humanity, the filmmakers narrative and character choices to not prosecute their protagonist’s bad behavior leaves a very bad taste in the mouth.