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by Kevin Fullam
“You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I am not wanted.” -- Mystery Man, Lost Highway
In some lore, vampires are rendered powerless in homes unless they have been formally invited inside. In the case of washed-up "adult film" star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), he might not exactly have been invited into the dens of his potential marks... but he's also not swiftly booted out after he manages to wedge his feet in the doorways, either.
It's likely that everyone has known someone like Mikey during their lives -- a person whose capacity for friendship is directly correlated with both their own level of desperation and their target's utility. At the outset of Red Rocket, Mikey shows up at his estranged wife Lexi's (Bree Elrod) ramshackle house in rural Texas without a penny to his name. She doesn't want to even open the door. They've been down this road before.
But Mikey turns on the charm, and slowly manages to claw himself inside, scraping together some goodwill by pitching in cash that he earns by dealing for the local drug supplier (Judy Hill). In time, he even wins himself back into Lexi's good graces (and her bedroom), until the day when he, in an unusual fit of mild generosity, decides to treat Lexi and her mom to donuts at the local bakery.
As soon as Mikey lays eyes on "Strawberry" (Suzanna Son), the beautiful 17-year-old behind the counter, the wheels start spinning, and all pretenses of reconnecting with Lexi fly right out the window. The delusions of grandeur emerge -- Strawberry is going to be his ticket back to the top of the adult-film universe. "She's even got a ready-made name!," he tells his neighbor, though Strawberry herself isn't yet privy to this plan.
Day after day, Mikey drops by the donut shop to work his magic, and soon enough, Lexi is noticing that Mikey's enthusiasm (both in and out of the bedroom) for her is considerably waning. Can Mikey extricate himself and hightail it back to California with Strawberry in tow?
Red Rocket is certainly one of those films where you might feel a bit... er, "unclean," post-viewing. Obviously, Your Mileage May Vary as far as Mikey's rather exuberant descriptions of his film work, but at the heart of the story is a 45-year-old's pursuit of a high-school girl. Lolita with a twist. How cool are we with this? What sort of comeuppance do we desire?
Director Sean Baker's naturalistic style pulls no punches, as small-town Texas here looks just as battered as the film's protagonist, in much the same way that Baker depicted the low-rent motels of the Sunshine State in The Florida Project. And if Disney World represented a paradise of sorts in the latter, then Strawberry is the Magic Kingdom here -- beautiful, pure, and a lifeline to a better existence. Both films end on a similar note: a glimpse of Eden that may or may not be delusional, amidst a personal world that's collapsing on all sides. It ain't pretty to watch... but at no time is it ever boring.
The Chicago Critics Film Festival returns in May 2022. Follow @chicagocritics for updates!
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