Review: Red Rocket stars Simon Rex as a man on the make

Red Rocket (MA15+, 130 minutes)

4 stars

We all have that friend from our younger days who never quite matured into the suburban sensibility that adulthood and responsibility thrust upon us.

Simon Rex in Red Rocket. Picture: Roadshow

Simon Rex in Red Rocket. Picture: Roadshow

I have one such friend whom I adore but who remains more than a bit of a hopeless case. When his number comes up on my phone, I'm always in two minds about answering. His stories are always brilliant, borderline if not actually criminal tales of debauched behaviour, or the call is a plea to lend him money, a loan that will never be repaid.

American independent filmmaker Sean Baker's new feature Red Rocket is centred around one such character and it can be a bit of an uncomfortable watch for anyone, like me, to whom it feels as much like a documentary as it does a wonderfully crafted character study.

Former adult industry star Mikey (Simon Rex) returns to his home town in coastal Texas, a little down on his luck and obviously on the run from something - he arrives with no luggage, a black eye, and nothing in his pockets but a few dollars.

Rocking up to the front door at the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), he is met with disdain.

Nobody in his home town, it seems, is thrilled to see him alive, much less back in the neighbourhood.

But Mikey is a hustler. A literal one, acknowledging his sex-worker background.

He is also a force of nature, a worker of charm, able to spin a tale to his own ends and able to believe his own stories long enough to get them to work for him.

Despite Lexi's obvious loathing towards him, Mikey convinces her to let him sleep on the couch for a few days while he looks for work, and in a short time he has also defrosted the icy response from Lexi's mother Lil (Brenda Deiss).

With paid work scarce and hard to land with a resume that only lists his porn work, Mikey returns to his teenage gig of dealing weed around the neighbourhood.

Meeting the young and charming Strawberry (Suzanna Son) at the local donut shop has an electric effect on the unfocused grifter, and he begins a friendship with the girl, who is on the brink of womanhood.

That documentary feel to this film is genuine, a conscious approach from Baker.

He seems to be capturing, fly-on-the-wall style, stories of the folk left behind in contemporary America.

His actors are cunningly cast and give raw performances. Key among these is Rex, himself a former porn worker whose career has certainly enjoyed a pivot to the supposedly more reputable side of the film industry.

Red Rocket played at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Like his character, Rex's performance is a force of nature, an open wound, like capturing desperation in a bottle. Mikey has a despairing charm, but he is also a sociopath. He is always on the make and his intentions never venture beyond self-serving.

The young Strawberry is won over by him, but we know immediately his infatuation with her centres around his thinking she might make a great porn performer upon whom he might resurrect his fortunes.

Supporting the documentary feel is Baker's moral neutrality towards the characters.

I'm not making a moral judgment about Mikey's porn or sex-worker background. That's hard and genuine work.

No, Baker's screenplay has Mikey walk an extremely fine line in a number of morally grey areas, particularly in his relationship with the impressionable Strawberry.

There is Oscar buzz around Rex's performance.

Remember, even Oscar winner Kevin Costner got his start in films considered soft-core.

Baker shot the film on 16mm which again gives it that authentically doco feel, and considering his budget was about $1 million, much of that must have gone on film stock.

Baker sets his film in 2016 with the electioneering and news cycle of the election that would bring Trump to power playing out in the film's background.

He allows you to form your own impressions on the comment he is making with this.

This story Charming hustler is well captured first appeared on The Canberra Times.