Sean Baker’s latest film, Red Rocket, shocked audiences at the Telluride Film Festival, and will likely do the same when it hits the New York Film Festival soon. It’s an unflinching look at taboo sexual desire in the spirit of Lolita. The story follows former porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who returns to his crumbling hometown of Texas City, claiming to have given up his crazy LA life for his humble roots. He cooks, he cleans, he mows the lawn … until he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Feisty, freckled, and extremely unchaste, she seems like a dream come true. Only trouble is she’s 17 — or maybe, he decides, that’s a perk. Over the next few weeks, Mikey seduces her with dreams of love, fame, and adventure, hoping to eventually launch her to adult video stardom.
Despite Mikey’s one-track mind, Baker sets up a constellation of foils amongst the women in the cast. Two novice actresses shine here: Son as the naively eager Strawberry and Brittney Rodriguez as June, her strictly celibate friend. Son balances her wide-eyed maiden act with a too-cool-for-you flourish, and Rodriguez’s rigid attitude complements her well. The latter especially stands out as a non-professional actor, feeling like one of the few natural people in a film driven by outsized personalities.
Within this triumvirate, Rex’s performance unfortunately plateaus. As Mikey’s self-obsession grows, his hostility calcifies. When Baker introduced the film at Telluride, he assured the audience that “It’s okay to laugh, it’s a comedy.” And laugh they did, until the main character firmly crossed the line between local comic and dangerous predator. The film is set during the 2016 presidential election, and Mikey’s aggressive self-promotion feels distinctly reflective of Trumpism — full of brazen narcissism, blatant misogyny, and cruel exploitation of the meek. He’s clearly a caricature, but it still feels almost too close to home.
Maybe that’s why the film can be so uncomfortable; it’s too personal. As Nabokov does with Humbert Humbert, Baker slides the viewer into Mikey’s shoes. During a weekend sexcapade in Strawberry’s home, the camera ponders the whole scene in deep focus — not just her naked body, but also her bedroom’s noticeably pink and frilly décor. The forbidden fruit is both erotic and morally distressing. What does the audience really want? To see more of Strawberry, or to see Mikey’s demise?
As the moral quandary worsens, it’s difficult to drop that sense of suspicion. Cinematographer Drew Daniels does his best to mesmerize anyway. Extreme long shots capture the sheer expanse of this small Southern town, where houses are far and few between among the winding roads. Brutally sunny days illuminate a crisp color palette, dividing Strawberry’s fantastical pastel world from Mikey’s dusty hovel. All along, Daniels embraces a noticeable textured film grain, furthering the retro erotica look.
The film is in dialogue with the state of sex in US cinema, which is currently quite squeamish. Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday bemoaned that “sex is disappearing from the big screen.” Kate Hagen backed this feeling up in Playboy with hard statistics. In Lithium, Kaiya Shunyata notes that when sex scenes do appear, the characters featured are usually white and heterosexual (this applies in Red Rocket too). Today sex is explored more on TV and the internet than in theaters. Mainstream filmmakers aren’t as willing to take risks, especially with the endless churn of family-friendly blockbusters. Even arthouse and queer cinema tend to hint rather than gaze, like in Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, or this year’s The Power of the Dog. In this context, Red Rocket‘s explicitness is a potent conversation starter. And the movie’s ambiguous ending leaves the audience to choose: Is this Mikey’s fantasy, or our own? What do — or should — we desire? Sex sells, it tells us, unless we choose not to buy.
Red Rocket will be playing as part of the New York Film Festival, running through October 10.
They Managed to Mess Up an Art Heist Movie
There must be a lesson in Vasilis Katsoupis’s film Inside about the vacuousness of the art market or the claustrophobia of exhibition spaces — I just don’t care.
Ten Painful Stories of the Dutch Colonial Slave Trade
The Rijksmuseum’s traveling show strives to remind us that we are all, in some way, a part of this chapter of human history, whose legacy continues today.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
Textured Histories at Shiprock Santa Fe
The Santa Fe gallery features Indigenous textiles and jewelry from the early 19th century to today.
Renaissance Portrait of “Ugly Duchess” Likely Depicts a Man
A curator at London’s National Gallery believes the subject of painter Quinten Massys’s painting “is most likely a he.”
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Hokusai’s “Great Wave” Makes a Splash at Auction
An edition of the iconic woodblock print broke records when it sold for $2.8M this week.
MTV’s The Exhibit Is Back With an Inflatable Dolphin
Episode four, in which artists tackled themes of justice and injustice, was the most lifeless of the reality TV show so far.
Miniature Worlds: Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Yayoi Kusama
Through small-scale works, this exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York examines Cornell’s prominent role in the lives and careers of Johnson and Kusama.
Florida Principal Ousted Over “Pornographic” Michelangelo Sculpture
Parents complained that the famous sculpture was shown to their sixth graders.
Tickets to Sold-Out Vermeer Show Are Going for Hundreds
The online resale market for the Rijksmuseum’s smash exhibition is booming, with tickets selling on eBay for over $2K.
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?