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film review

Simon Rex in a scene from Red Rocket.Courtesy of A24 / Mongrel Media

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Red Rocket

Directed by Sean Baker

Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch

Starring Simon Rex, Bree Elrod and Suzanna Son

Classification R; 128 minutes

Opens Dec. 17 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver theatres; expands to other Canadian cities throughout December


Critic’s pick


One of my review-writing secrets, for any and all interested (hi, Mom?), is listening to the soundtrack of the film in question while typing away. Sometimes this isn’t possible (not everything makes its way to Apple Music) and sometimes this is just a silly trick that convinces me I’m being more productive than I actually am. Anyway, this is a long way of saying that during the time it took me to write this review of the excellent new comedy-drama Red Rocket, I’ve listened to *NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye approximately three-dozen times. I have no one to blame but myself. And director Sean Baker.

Baker is the do-it-all filmmaker (director, co-writer, producer, editor, casting supervisor) responsible for three of the most exciting independent American films of the past decade: 2012′s Starlet, 2015′s Tangerine and 2017′s The Florida Project. Each delivered humane, deeply empathetic looks at those living on the fringes of society, all without slipping into sensationalism or poverty fetishization.

Red Rocket continues this trend, with Baker this time going deep into Texas circa 2016 to deliver a portrait of a slime-ball: a vile but photogenic charmer trying to convince everyone, including himself, that he can and deserves to succeed in Donald Trump’s America. Oh, and the film features that catchy/infernal *NSYNC song no fewer than four times, each usage underscoring the fact that, however much we might want to forget that Baker’s characters exist, they’re not actually going anywhere. Or maybe Baker just liked the song. Either way, the pop song works here just as improbably well as Red Rocket itself.

Like in the director’s previous features, the lead character in Red Rocket is a sex worker – a porn star in this case, so slightly higher on the industry’s informal hierarchy than Tangerine and The Florida Project’s street- and hotel-room prostitutes. Not that any societal demarcation matters when we first meet Red Rocket’s Mikey (Simon Rex): the literally bruised and battered man has just $22 and a tank-top to his name, having fled the insincere glitz of Los Angeles for the honest grit of his hometown, Texas City. Blessed with a fast mouth, a chiselled form and one supremely endowed appendage that would make Dirk Diggler blush, Mikey convinces his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) to put him up in her dilapidated house, which she shares with her elderly mother Lil (Brenda Deiss).

Suzanna Son plays Strawberry, a local doughnut-shop cashier who wants out of Texas City.Courtesy of A24 / Mongrel Media

Mikey swears to Lexi, and anyone else within earshot, that he has a plan to get back on his feet, and that he is only the accidental victim of fast-life circumstances. But it is quickly apparent that he is simply a beautiful monster. He already ruined Lexi’s life by pushing her through the porn-industry wringer at a young age, and is now actively on the hunt for a meal-ticket back into the XXX world’s good graces. As luck and desperation would have it, Mikey finds a perfect mark in the 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a local doughnut-shop cashier who wants out of Texas City almost, maybe more, than her new boyfriend/predator.

If all of the above sounds stomach-churning, rest assured that Baker fashions it into a smoothly, darkly comic tale that lets everyone, even the detestable Mikey, retain gobs of humanity and relatability. There is a sincerity here that sticks. Baker genuinely loves his characters and the societal rung they find themselves stuck on. His attention to detail – the bottles of Big Red soda crowding everyone’s kitchens, the blazing glow of Texas City’s refinery shrouding the city in a sort of warm, inviting hellfire – could, and already has, been mistaken for disgust. But I see honesty and a distinct absence of judgment. Well, almost: there is one jarring scene in which Mikey is assaulted by what can only be described as Texan cartoon characters.

Whatever you think of Baker’s world, though, Red Rocket is mostly Rex’s show. The former MTV personality, whose biggest onscreen acting credits involve the lesser editions of the Scary Movie franchise, is in nearly every scene here, tasked with being the story’s hero and villain. There is a certain X-rated energy to him, but to keep things clean we can just say the actor controls the camera with a massive kind of swagger. Hello, hello, hello.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.