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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

Despite its loose-limbed, casual rhythm there is something tight and sad at the heart of Sean Baker’s Cannes competition comedy, Red Rocket. On the surface it’s similar to Baker’s last two films, Tangerine (2015) and The Florida Project (2017), in also being a contradictory mix of joyful and despairing: exuberant lo-fi filmmaking delivering caustic social observation. But in Mikey (Simon Rex), the energetically delusional, manipulative yet affable, low-grade sociopath around which it revolves, Baker has created a different sort of hometown hero to the struggling but stout-hearted women he’s portrayed before – one whose every malicious, selfish act elicits a side order of pity, yet on whom every ounce of pity is wasted.

Dumb as rocks but with a subterranean streak of cunning when it comes to achieving his short-term goals (and his goals are all short-term), Mikey is a washed-up porn star whose glory days in California with “five model homes” and a mantelpiece groaning with AVN awards (the Oscars of the adult industry) are long behind him. As the film begins, in DP Drew Daniels’s kinetic, popping pastels and to the pounding inanity of *NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye, he is slinking back to the dead-end Texas town he grew up in, with nothing but the clothes on his back and the Viagra in his wallet. He cajoles his way back into the dilapidated house in which his surly estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), also a porn-industry veteran, lives with her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). And somehow we know the “few days” he needs to crash there will stretch into weeks and months.

Unemployable in even the lowest entry-level service industry job, Mikey goes enthusiastically back to dealing weed for local lawnchair kingpin Leondria (Judy Hill) and her daughter/enforcer June (Brittney Rodriguez), and enlists the next-door-neighbor’s kid Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), a dopey but goodnatured incel type who believes all of Mikey’s self-aggrandizing bullshit, to drive him around. Eventually, he scores a little money and, in a fit of largesse, brings Lexi and Lil to Donut Hole where, in between the racks of glazed and iced and jelly-filled confections, he spots the teenage server and becomes instantly besotted. Raylee (major find Suzanna Son) is a freckled redhead with a cherry Chapstick pout, who exudes an intoxicating mix of schoolgirl naivete and sexual worldliness, and who goes by the porn-ready alias Strawberry.

In another universe, Red Rocket would be the love story between the donut girl and this 40-something washout with the washboard abs and the bright eyes of a Bradley Cooper stunt double. But Strawberry is 17 – and if that means in Texas she is, as Mikey says “Legal as an eagle!” (because as we all know, having sex with an eagle is a misdemeanor at best) Baker is by no means blind to the ickiness of the age gap, especially once Mikey starts grooming her for the porn career that he believes will also be his ticket back into the industry.

With all the porn talk, the casual misogyny, the braggadocio and selfishness, and with coverage of the 2016 election run-up burbling away on TV, it’s hard not to compare Mikey to former President Trump. But the parallels between Mikey and Donnie are easily overstated: as played by Rex, who imbues even the character’s worst impulses with the charm of the idiot who didn’t mean for it to turn out that way, Mikey may be an entitled narcissist who blights the lives of everyone he meets, but he is at least a likeable one. And while he consistently fails upward, within a stratum of society this marginalized and poverty-blighted his up still looks pretty far down.

In fact Mikey’s monstrousness can take a moment to register, in a film that seems to be about nothing much while you watch it but that gradually expands to be about everything after it ends. At one point, just after he’s convinced Strawberry to consider a porn career, Mikey notices a keyboard at the foot of her bed and asks her to play. She obliges, launching into a soulful cover of recurrent refrain Bye Bye Bye – and she’s really good. But while Mikey applauds, there’s a terrible blankness to his response, as though he’s almost aggravated by the display of a talent that he has no use for, that he can’t pimp. Mikey cannot love what he cannot use. Perhaps he cannot love at all, and Red Rocket, for all its liveliness and humor, is a pinkly iced and sprinkled portrait of a man, and a nation, with a hole in the middle.

Further reading

Film of the week: The Florida Project paints a hardscrabble wonderland in candy colours

By Kate Stables

Film of the week: The Florida Project paints a hardscrabble wonderland in candy colours

Film of the week: Tangerine

Film of the week: Tangerine

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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