Sean Baker has been making critically acclaimed films for years about people living on the fringes of polite society, some of whom engage in sex work, and some of whom are played by non-actors — most notably 2012’s Starlet, 2015’s Tangerine and my personal favorite, 2017’s The Florida Project — but they have collectively received only a single Oscar nomination, best supporting actor for Florida Project‘s Willem Dafoe. I would expect that to change with his latest work in that vein, the electric Red Rocket, which had its world premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday and has left seemingly everyone who saw it — including, rumor has it, a number of festival jurors — buzzing ever since.
Red Rocket, which A24 will release in the U.S. in the fall, tells the story of “Mikey Saber” (Simon Rex), a fading porn star who, in the summer of 2016, returns from the big city of Los Angeles to the small town in Texas from which he came. There, he discovers that he is persona-non-grata to virtually anyone — even his wife (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss), who are “like meth-head versions of the Edies in Grey Gardens,” as The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney perfectly put it in his review — but manages to cobble together enough money and goodwill to hang around for a month. During that time, he takes an interest in “Strawberry,” a self-possessed 17-year-old donut store clerk (Suzanna Son) — perhaps out of genuine attraction, or perhaps because he thinks she could be his next lifeline — and complications ensue. (The age of consent is not one of them — in Texas, it is 17.) Is he using her? Is she using him? Does everyone use someone? Is that not a large part of sex itself? These are the sorts of questions the film left me pondering.
With references to explicit sex acts and real porn stars, and with a protagonist who proudly boasts that he has “fucked 1300 bitches” and is shown nude multiple times, the film — which Baker co-wrote with his longtime collaborator Chris Bergoch — is not for the prude or faint of heart. But when taken for what I believe it to be — a dark comedy about America in the age of Trump, a guy with more than a few similar personality traits — it becomes immensely absorbing and amusing (albeit slightly less so in its off-the-wall third act). I mean, where else will you get a philosophical debate about whether or not a male receiving oral sex in a porn video is as deserving of an AVN Award as a female performing it?
Which brings us to the performances by Rex, a weathered but handsome 46, and Son, a very young-looking 25, which strike me as right up the alley of the Academy’s actors branch — and that’s before you even factor in their remarkable personal narratives, which will undoubtedly be discussed on the campaign trail. Rex was an MTV VJ (circa mid-Nineties) turned rapper (“Dirt Nasty”) who apparently dabbled in porn himself at one point, and who, prior to Red Rocket, had largely been written off as a has-been or never-was. Son, meanwhile, had no previous acting credits of note, and was reportedly approached about this role after Baker spotted her across the lobby of a movie theater. In other words, it will be quite a Cinderella story if either or — as I can totally see happening — both of these two wind up with Oscar nominations.
In the much nearer future, though, look for the film — which I describe as a cross between 1974’s The Gambler and 2017’s The Disaster Artist — to bag at least one major Cannes prize when the jury announces its picks on Saturday, which should give it a shot of momentum heading in to the fall film festivals.