Sean Baker blew audiences away when he arrived in Cannes with the gorgeous Florida Project, so his latest feature, showing in Cannes in the main competition, was one of the most eagerly awaited films of the festival. And while it contains elements that will be familiar to those who have watched his previous films, Red Rocket lacks one essential ingredient to bind and those elements and make them rise to those anticipated heights.
Some of Baker’s trademark filmmaking is here, in particular the absolutely sumptuous colours that light up the screen. The candy-coloured houses and stores are so vibrant and cartoonish that it seems impossible they exist in real life, yet Baker seeks them out and uses them to beautiful chromatic effect. Here, though, the film is grainier than in his previous work.
The story centres on a man Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) who arrives in Texas City, stony broke and beaten up. He’s handsome and full of charm, which he switches on in order to wheedle himself into the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod). It transpires that the pair were both porn stars. While Lexi was reduced to turning tricks, Mikey boasts of all his awards (including for best blowjob) and followers on social media (‘Over a hundred!’). Lexi is living with her drug addict mum (Brenda Deiss) and has lost custody of her child with another partner. Baker depicts the lot of the average ex-porn star and it doesn’t look good. And there is a lack of any candy-coloured loveliness at their home to sugar coat their struggles.
Mikey is a wheeler-dealer, turning on that charm with a gangly neighbour Lonnie (the superb Ethan Darbone) in order to get free rides. In return, he regales the kid with tales of his professional life and juicy gossip about his co-stars. When not in the car, Mikey has to make do getting around by bike and the sight of him cycling around the town on the too-small girly bike (and even that is gorgeous lemon yellow) is both pathetic and funny. It is while he is out and about that he meets Strawberry, a beautiful 17-year-old (Suzanna Son) whom he intends to groom and take to LA to make his fortune. In order to make enough money to get the hell out of this backwater town, Mikey starts selling weed for a local dealer Leondria (Judy Hill). It is unlikely that things are going to end well.
All of this takes place against the local backdrop of oil rigs and the wider backdrop of the 2016 election, with Trump’s voice and his looming victory a constant presence. And this neighbourhood is a Trump heartland: the disenfranchised south abandoned and ignored by many, which Baker depicts here with great sympathy.
Another of the filmmaker’s specialities is his use of non-professional actors and this film has just two professionals (Rex and Elrod, a theatre actress). The rest are newcomers, all of whom put in excellent performances. But the absolute revelation is Son: she is a Lolita of the Trumpian era, all freckles and wide-eyed loveliness entwined with a sexual knowingness.
So what’s the missing ingredient? For me it is that Mikey – for all his charm – just is not a sympathetic character. There is little in him that suggests any kind of altruism or the possibility of redemption. He is selfish and his actions cause pain, both physical and mental. Whereas the leads in The Florida Project and Tangerine win your heart, Mikey leaves you cold. This is despite – or perhaps because of – a truly fabulous performance by Rex. Sympathy lies with the leading ladies: Lexi, Lil and Strawberry, all of whom have been, or risk being, manipulated and undone by their men. And Baker makes clear that the biggest manipulator of all is just about to be elected president of the USA.