Stepping bravely out into a censorious media environment where depiction is too often viewed as endorsement and the distinction between hero and protagonist is repeatedly blurred, Sean Baker, one of America's most acute observers, introduces us to a charming sociopath for the ages. As was the case with the same director's Tangerine and The Florida Project, the acting throughout Red Rocket is exemplary.
Bree Elrod bleeds weariness as Lexi, a middle-aged woman straddling a disappointing past and a less than promising future in a polluted corner of southeast Texas. Suzanna Son is better still as Strawberry, a smart, sass-mouthed kid working in a doughnut shop by the looming oil refinery.
But the film is all about the irrepressible, unreliable, delusional, possibly mentally troubled – at one stage he mentions pills for his serotonin – husband of the former and pursuer of the latter. You can find bumblers like Mikey Saber throughout film comedy. Norman Wisdom had the same unstoppable enthusiasm. Jerry Lewis was as eager to be loved.
But, as played brilliantly by Simon Rex, a former MTV VJ, Saber is an altogether more worrying piece of work in a film more firmly rooted in the real world.
The universe of Red Rocket is a quasi-industrial limbo that has been largely ignored by popular culture
He almost certainly wouldn't see things that way. Bumbling back to Lexi, who lives on the outskirts of Texas City, after spending years in Los Angeles as a porn actor, Mikey essentially begs his way back into the family home. He has a half-hearted crack at legitimate work, but soon ends up flogging weed for neighbouring small-time hustlers.
The film really finds its unsettling rhythm when he encounters Strawberry, just 18, flogging bear claws and doughnut holes to grateful hardhats. He impresses her with tales of the big city and they embark on an inappropriate relationship.
The power is clearly skewed towards the older man, but there is something poignantly wretched about his diminished circumstances. He travels on what looks like a child’s bike. He pretends to live in a well-off part of town and, in a repeated joke that recalls a famous scene from Only Fools and Horses, has Strawberry leave him off at a stranger’s house while he prays the owners don’t emerge.
For all the sinister undercurrents, Red Rocket is hilarious throughout.
There is nothing much on the page to win us round to Mikey. It is Rex’s extraordinary puppy-dog vigour that makes the character tolerable in spite of his repeated appalling decisions. By the time he tells Strawberry that he can make her a star in the pornography business, we already know that he is perversely sincere in his entreaties. He believes in the ludicrous nominations he’s received for “adult cinema” awards. His horizons are so skewed he genuinely thinks he’s offering her an opportunity.
Baker has enough confidence in his characters and his audience to not make an obvious victim of Strawberry. Her apparent confidence and intelligence does nothing to deflate the underlying unease. That tension is gripping throughout.
Baker's films, shot on the move in rude, blotchy colours, spring potently from their offbeat surroundings. Tangerine went among transgender sex workers at the wrong end of Hollywood. The Florida Project set itself in the least Disneyfied shadows of Orlando. The universe of Red Rocket is a quasi-industrial limbo that has been largely ignored by popular culture.
Just as Hal Ashby's Shampoo took place to the rhythms of Richard Nixon's first election, this very different film plays out in the summer before Donald Trump pulled off his surprise win. The characters' utter indifference to the hustings dispels any notion the supposed hero of overlooked America energised every corner of his target constituency. These people are too busy getting by. Too busy shrugging off everyday pestilence. Mikey himself is too busy pursuing a dream that is barely worth the candle. All life is here.
Opens on March 11th