The Florida Project was one of the undoubted cinematic highlights of 2017. Director Sean Baker’s ability to depict working-class American life is his real strength. No matter how wretched his characters, no matter how squalid their existences, he somehow manages to invest them with an innate nobility, finding the true characters hiding beneath the masks they show to the world.
Red Rocket continues in that vein, following the misadventures of one Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), former porn star, now down on his luck. Carrying the cuts and bruises of a recent business ‘disagreement,’ he arrives in his former hometown of Texas City with no car, no luggage and only twenty-two dollars to his name. He wastes no time but walks directly to the home of his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), who now lives with her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss). Neither of them is pleased to have him turn up unannounced on their doorstep, but Mikey pleads with them and eventually gets permission to sleep on their sofa ‘just for a few nights.’
Once in, he starts to wear them down, his first objective to get off that sofa and into his wife’s double bed. At first, he goes everywhere on Lexi’s borrowed bike, but soon begins to exploit his local ‘celeb’ status, starting with impressionable next-door neighbour, Lonnie (Ethan Darbonne), who quickly accepts the role of Mikey’s unpaid chauffeur. After some doomed attempts to find honest work, Mikey enlists with local drug queenpin, Leondria (Judy Hill), selling dope and steadily accruing the funds he needs to relaunch his stalled career.
And then, he visits local coffee shop, The Donut Hole, where he meets seventeen year old ‘Strawberry’ (Suzanna Son), a sparky young waitress who’s drawn to Mikey’s glamorous swagger and outsider status. He is instantly smitten too, not by love, but by the idea of a hot business opportunity. Surely he can act as Strawberry’s manager and launch her as the porn industry’s hottest new star? Would that be a way back in?
As you will have gathered, Mikey is an utterly detestable creep and I really ought to be hissing him off the screen, but, as played by Rex (himself a former porn star), he radiates so much charm and charisma that I absolutely understand how so many people are taken in by him. Here is a man always on the lookout for an opportunity to help himself to whatever’s available, who thinks nothing of dumping on those who have put their trust in him. It’s surely no accident that the television screens repeatedly reference a certain Donald Trump – proof positive that, in America, a shameless liar really can can make it to the top of the tree.
Red Rocket is built around an extraordinary performance from Rex – he is simply outstanding in the central role. Son too is fabulous as the naive teenager he’s so callously grooming. But there are some people who can see through Mikey’s charms. Leondria’s hard-bitten daughter, June (Brittany Rodriguez), recognises him instantly for what he is – and makes no secret of the fact that she distrusts him.
Baker’s film, despite a running time of over two hours, never puts a foot wrong. His cast of characters are brilliantly explored and (as in The Florida Project) he even makes the grotty urban landscapes of Texas City look vibrant and – especially at night – shimmering with possibility.
Catch this on the big screen if you can. It’s a must-see.