After twenty years of working in the adult film industry in Los Angeles, Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), returns with his tail between his legs to Texas City, Texas, a small oil town south of Houston with twenty-two dollars in his pocket. He manages to convince his wife Lexi (Brie Elrod), with whom he’s separated, and his mother-in-law, to let him crash for a few days.
Promises are made. Mikey will find a job and he’ll put in his share of the rent.
With his first pay, from the proceeds of cannabis sales, he takes his wife and mother-in-law to have some donuts in a nearby shop. There, he immediately falls under the spell of Raylee (Suzanna Son), the young and pretty redhead behind the counter. Could she be his ticket to L.A.?
In a eurocentric year for the Cannes Festival, with a spate of strong French and Eastern European films jockeying for position in competition with Wes Anderson and Sean Penn, this American indie kind of came out of nowhere. And although I may be as international as they come, this American-centric film, set in the Lonestar State, appealed to me in all kinds of ways.
Sean Baker is known and appreciated in Cannes, both for his “Tangerine,” which was entirely filmed with an iPhone and for “Florida Project” which was at Director’s Fortnight in 2017.
I loved “Rocket,” up, down, inside and out: the budget motel esthetic, the culturally-barren antipodes of a Texan backwater, the clichés (a viagra-popping adult film actor, a hypersexual teenager, a woman protecting her home with a shotgun, a big bad oil refinery (but thank goodness nothing about pollution or the environment in the movie), outrageous cannabis consumption. There’s also sex in cars, sex in beds and sex by the sea. It’s not so much the content that I adhere to but the strange and attractive congeries of people, situations and places that make this film.
Saber is the quintessential fuckup, but he’s not without some self-restraint. He genuinely wants to rehabilitate himself. He’s made his choices and now he’s constantly playing catch up, dealing drugs for rent money and looking for a way back through to his former life, all while casually pulling the wool over his wife’s eyes (but as long as she’s getting some action she seems happy–for a while, at least).
If his last three films are any indication, Sean Baker has a knack for putting an America in decline on show but he does so without pathos, or second thoughts. And the locations he puts his characters in are sleazy lairs of desperation: cramped homes on the wrong side of the tracks, a donut shop called “The Donut Hole,” a topless bar, a pink house.
The cast of supporting actors also helps make “Red Rocket” a win: Mikey’s neighbor, who tries to pass himself off as a vet, a nearby family who will provide Mickey with pot, the ginger-haired donut shop girl whom Mikey will pursue, Lexi’s mother (perhaps my favorite character) who’s usually in a drug-induced stupor but who will come to her senses fast when rent money is flashed before her eyes.
“Red Rocket” was one of my favorite films at this year’s Cannes Festival.