Grackles review Red Rocket
Directed by Sean Baker
Reviewed by Madison Garber and Christopher Notarnicola
Sean Baker continues his cinematic examination of the margins of American society in Red Rocket (2021), his follow-up film to The Florida Project, which brought Baker’s work to the mainstream in 2017. His latest film builds on his exploration of sex work in Tangerine (2015) and Starlet (2012), following Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who returns to Texas City in disgrace after living it up in Los Angeles as an award-winning porn star for two decades. It takes more than a little charm and fast-talking to convince his estranged wife and former porn star Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) to take him in. The condition: Mikey must earn his keep. At first he attempts to find honest work, but when his porn-laden resume fails to impress, he turns to weed dealing for Texas City local Leondria (Judy Hill) and her daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez). It’s then that Mikey sniffs out his second chance at stardom in the form of Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the near-eighteen-year-old donut shop worker he attempts to coax into the porn industry—his golden ticket back to LA.
Madison Garber: Baker has made a name for himself by bringing Italian neorealism to the oft-forgotten American fringes, capturing an authenticity that’s difficult to cultivate on Hollywood backlots or lookalike locales with seasoned actors. But what struck me while watching Red Rocket was the inextricability of Baker’s characters with his chosen locale. In the film’s opening, washed-up porn star Mikey Saber returns to Texas City, where oil refineries belch fire and smoke, looming like specters of honest work over his beaten body. Of course, in Baker’s film, “honest work” is relative, complicated. Leondria, Mikey’s weed supplier, tries to warn Mikey against selling to the “hard hats” that work for the refineries, capturing a tension between the negative political attitudes towards Big Oil and the relative financial stability that refineries provide to locals—work that stands in contrast to the weed-dealing and trick-turning realities of Mikey and his wife Lexi.
Texas City’s proximity to the Texas Killing Fields—the stretch of land along I-45 where the bodies of dozens of women have been found or gone missing since the early 70s—also lends an undercurrent of dread to Mikey’s already uncomfortable suitcase pimp scheme to lure seventeen-year-old Strawberry into a life of porn stardom. For all its gritty realism though, Red Rocket makes a move toward the fantastical in the film’s conclusion, a close (or maybe not so close) cousin to the imagined escape of Moonee in The Florida Project into the technicolor wonderland of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I’m wondering what you think Baker’s up to here, particularly in light of Mikey and Moonee’s respective characters and their journeys.
Christopher Notarnicola: It seems that Sean Baker has been exploring the interplay of reality and fantasy for at least the last decade. Starlet, like Red Rocket, follows an adult film actor, a job which requires its workers—maybe in a more direct sense even than other entertainers—to bring a dream to life, to embody reverie, to become fantasy laid bare. In his following film, Tangerine, this interplay is presented technically, giving a verité vibe with the camera work and streetside locales while also creating a dreamlike resonance with holiday décor and post-production color saturation. The