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Sean Baker tells stories with the painstaking care of a documentarian. His previous award-winning films have followed the child of a struggling single mother living on the edge of Disney World ("The Florida Project") and the ups and downs of two trans women employed as sex workers in LA (“Tangerine”). Baker fully immerses viewers into his subjects’ everyday lives to the point that you feel like you’re a part of them, and he brings that same level of research and immersion to “Red Rocket” — the story of a broke, aging porn star who returns to his small Texas town.
Baker’s protagonist Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) used to have a dream life — or so he loves to tell anyone who will listen. He won an award at “the Oscars of adult entertainment” three times, and had a once-glamorous marriage with fellow porn star Lexi (Bree Elrod). But the industry has used him and spit him out, and when we first meet him in “Red Rocket,” he’s outside his estranged wife’s door begging for a place to stay so he doesn’t sleep on the street. Lexi reluctantly lets him back into her life and begins to harbor hope that they might reignite their marriage. Meanwhile, Mikey is off seducing underage high school donut-shop employee Strawberry (Suzanna Son), hoping to lure her into the porn industry and use her as his ticket back in.
Amid all of Mikey’s ill-advised schemes and many moral failures, Simon Rex manages to humanize the character in a gritty, earnest, vulnerable performance that should be considered a serious contender for Best Actor. Rex has a certain magnetic quality and boyish charm that draws you to Mikey, even if you know he’s a scumbag. He’s also a former porn star himself, and brings an authenticity and nuance to the performance — most noticeable in the details of his physicality and his unusually-high comfort with his body — that likely wouldn’t have been present with a conventional Hollywood leading man.
In capturing the emptied-out Texas town that forms the backdrop for “Red Rocket,” Baker also strives for total authenticity. We see this with the film's attention to detail: from a small group of people walking past a giant, smoggy factory looming in the background, to the factory workers' donut orders or the amount of weed they buy, we are given small but consistent hints at the hopelessness felt by the factory workers. More often than not, a Fox News anchor’s disembodied voice can be heard in the background — just to complete the image.
However, while Baker has brought the experiences and social issues of rural Texans to life, he also fails to engage with them in any meaningful way. There is no commentary on the causes of Trumpism, the impact of those beliefs on the many Black and brown characters that Trump supporters Lexi and her Mom Lil interact with, or the causes for the economic exploitation of the donut-loving factory workers.
But perhaps most insidiously, Mikey’s relationship with Strawberry is irresponsible, unrealistic, and implicitly victim-blaming. No one ever finds out that Mikey has had sex with an underage child and convinced her to film a sex scene (which is a federal crime). Mikey convinces Strawberry to break up with her boyfriend (which escalates into a public confrontation that her entire school hears about) and to drop out of high school, but she never confronts Mikey or expresses concern over his behavior. Advocates for victims of sexual abuse and assault have spent years trying to help the public understand that children cannot give consent, and the vast majority of relationships between older men and underage people are exploitative and dangerous. Against that backdrop, it’s all the more frustrating that the character of Strawberry is written to accommodate everything Mikey wants (for no developed reason), never shows discomfort with his behavior, and every negative consequence she does or will experience as a result of their relationship happens off-screen. Baker may well view their relationship as illegal and exploitative (which it is), but by refusing to pass judgement on it either implicitly or explicitly, he’s both normalizing that kind of behavior and furthering the false idea that young women like Strawberry are “asking for it.”
With his detail-rich portraits of disadvantaged Americans, the New-Jersey born Baker has made a career out of telling stories far removed from his own life. But in “Red Rocket,” he not only fails to leave viewers with any message or encouragement about how to fix the problems he’s portraying, but furthers harmful stereotypes about the vulnerable people who become involved with an industry that’s already extremely stigmatized and misunderstood.
— Arts Chair Joy C. Ashford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joy_ashford.
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