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The Dartmouth
April 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Review: ‘Red Rocket’ Brilliantly Explores the Cost of Desire

Produced by A24, the film follows ex-porn star Mikey Saber’s return to his Texas hometown, providing beautiful imagery and sinister humor.

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This past Friday, the Hopkins Center for the Arts screened “Red Rocket” for a nearly full audience of students and community members. The celebrated film studio behind the movie, A24, released the dark comedy in December 2021, which was directed by Sean Baker (best known for his previous film, The Florida Project). Set in a Texan town on the Gulf Coast, “Red Rocket” centers on aging former porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) as he returns to his hometown, Texas City. Desperate and penniless, he arrives at the house of his ex-wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and despite some hesitation, she eventually lets him stay and soon rekindles their romance. Mikey settles into a rhythm in Texas City — running a weed business out of a local donut shop, biking around the town and driving to strip clubs with his awkward younger neighbor, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone).

Mikey meets a high school senior who works at the donut shop, nicknamed Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Obsessed with her youth and flirty charm, Mikey pursues Strawberry. She’s at once naive and daring, intrigued by Mikey’s Hollywood past (she tells him, too, that she likes “men and not boys”). They soon begin an intense, albeit illegal, romance, having sex in the bed of her truck and smoking joints behind the donut shop. Mikey crafts a plan to move back to Hollywood with Strawberry and pursue a porn career together.

After causing a dramatic car crash on the freeway, Mikey decides to leave for California with only a vague confirmation that Strawberry wants to leave too. The final shot leaves their future ambiguous — Strawberry poses in a bikini at her doorstep, smiling at Mikey. However, viewers saw her car pull out in the previous frame, causing the last scene to feel like a daydream. Perhaps Mikey only imagines this moment, reflective of his almost deranged vision of their relationship.

Desire fuels “Red Rocket”: Lexi yearns for a stable relationship, Lonnie looks for validation through his friendship with Mikey, Mikey lusts after Strawberry and Strawberry craves an escape from the ordinary. The characters’ desire manifests in their relationships as they desperately search for fulfillment through another person. Strawberry’s eyes gleam when Mikey promises her fame or affirms her beauty.

However, the characters are always left unsatisfied. Thus, the film revels in the dissatisfaction sparked by unfulfilled longings. Somehow, even the landscape — the muggy breeze, seagulls, wooden shingles eroded by salt in the air — feels infused with a certain hunger. “Red Rocket” seeps with melancholy.

At its best, good storytelling capitalizes on nuance and embraces the strange intricacies of being human. “Red Rocket” accomplishes in expressing these complexities: Beauty emerges from the ordinary, humor exists in the most tragic moments and immoral characters are inexplicably compelling. For example, the film consistently reveals Mikey’s flaws — his delusions, vanity, pattern of exploiting his family and friends and then ruthlessly discarding them. He charms Lexi when he needs a place to stay and then disappoints her when he finds Strawberry. Yet Mikey is still somehow a magnetic, charismatic character, and viewers quickly become invested in his story.

In part, this success stems from the strengths of the actors. Baker famously “street casts” his actors, and discovered Son at a movie theater. Rex is similarly an unconventional choice, having worked both in comedy and in porn in real life, mirroring the character of Mikey. But both Son and Rex give captivating performances that embody the alluring, “real” quality of their characters.

More generally, “Red Rocket” uses intentional cinematography and visual design to maintain a lighthearted tone that still apprehends the somber truth of the story. At one point, Strawberry invites Mikey over to her house while her parents are out of town. As Mikey sits on the bed, Strawberry gives a poignant rendition of *NSYNC’s “Bye, Bye, Bye” on the piano. The shot is powerful, resting directly on Strawberry’s face as she sings with Mikey watching her in the background. Pink pillows line her bed, and her room feels fittingly like that of a teenager. The camera doesn’t move — and neither does Mikey’s unsettling stare. He only views her as an object of his desire even as she pours her heart into the song.

The ability of the film to find both beauty and levity in the sordid is sometimes unsettling, raising questions about the ethics of this approach. In other words, does Baker romanticize the world he portrays, and is this wrong? The local strip joint glows with rosy neon lights. Factory fumes blush red as the Texas sun sets. Strawberry floats down a beach boardwalk in a sundress and cowboy boots; meanwhile, Mikey, with a sly grin and arm around her waist, attempts to convince her to do porn.

In truth, the film aestheticizes the place it depicts without glorifying it. Baker stresses the tragedies of poverty. Drug and alcohol addictions pervade the community. It seems everyone dreams of leaving Texas City, but always gets pulled back. However, the relationship between Strawberry and Mikey never feels properly uncomfortable. They dance beside the ocean and flirt like teenagers. Viewers could easily forget the huge age gap between Strawberry and Mikey.

It’s admittedly difficult to discern how much responsibility the film has to actively condemn the perverse relationship it portrays. In some ways, the movie’s open exploration of the taboo is refreshing. Art should challenge the viewer and tackle dark, messy aspects of the human experience; furthermore, stories involving perfectly virtuous characters are frankly uninteresting. But the telling of a predatory relationship between a young girl and an older man must always be handled carefully, and “Red Rocket” does not always capture the severity of this situation. Oftentimes, while watching the movie I found myself rooting for the Mikey-Strawberry relationship — and subsequently felt disturbed by that instinct. 

Nevertheless, “Red Rocket” shines with the same eccentricity and charm of its characters. At once, the film is funny, bold, sexual and witty. Through “Red Rocket,” Baker creates a gritty, rich world bathed in the orange glow of the Gulf Coast, asking what we will risk to make our desires realized

Rating: ★★★★☆