Harlan Jacobson reports from The Cannes Film Festival 2021: Sean Baker's Red Rocket

CANNES, Monday July 19 –
By Harlan Jacobson

Red Rocket stays right inside Sean Baker’s wheelhouse — the sex industry workers, professional, amateur, haphazard, casual or casualties that inhabited Starlet, Tangerine and The Florida Project before. There’s just no victory or dignity in the path Red Rocket’s lead character, Mikey Saber, has taken to crawl back to Texas City, his dirtwater East Texas home town after 17 years in LA, where he says he made 2000 porn films and claims credit for six Adult Film Awards. As a failed porn star, he’s got nothing but the tanktop on his back, $22 bucks and a big sign that says beat it on his forehead, in short a radioactive loser who never met a ditch he couldn’t fall into.

Nobody’s glad to see this dude back in Texas, not his ex-wife, not her mother, no employer of any kind, not even Leondria, the local black boss weed lady who reluctantly fronts him some dope to sell, nor June, her para-military enforcer daughter, who understands without ever bothering to speak that Mikey is a mosquito. He’s all grift, starting with Lexi, moving on to her drop dead and die mother, Lil, to let him back into the house. He Svengalis Lonnie, the live-at-home son of Lexi’s neighbors, to become his livery driver in a beater, and then trips over Raylee, a 17 year-old high school girl rebranded as Strawberry for her hair, selling donuts at the Donut Hole—recalling the donut shack Baker used to convene his transgender hookers in Hollywood in the audacious and seductive Tangerine, the one he filmed on an iphone. Strawberry is a jailbait cruller magnet in the making whom Mikey sizes up as a born porn natural and his ticket to ride back to LA, this time as a promoter.

Baker could’ve recruited Simon Rex, who plays Mikey, not from MTV DJ-ing where he began before going on to play a type, nor from the solo gay porn jackoff tapes he made under the name Sebastian, but from Trump University, pursuing an advanced degree in Weaselhood. Rex seems to have taken acting notes from Eddie Haskell, as if Eddie had a grandkid who voted for Trump, who, in fact, flits across the background here on TV news, in case we miss Baker and his sharp, regular co-writer, Chris Bergoch’s point: Grifting in America works on the griftable, but better if the grifter has an inheritance.

It’s a brilliant performance by Rex, hilariously supported by Bree Elrod as Lexi the ex-wife and Brenda Deiss as Lil, Suzanne Son as Strawberry, the nymphette future porn star waiting to take LA by storm, plus the only two characters unfazed by Mikey’s line of bullrap, Judy Hill as the weed boss queen, and her killer daughter, June, Brittany Rodriguez.

My money’s on Red Rocket to win the Palme D’Or, with a pretty hip jury headed by Spike Lee.

A24, the Moonlight Oscar folks, have the film set for US release.