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.