WHAT I LIKED: Sean Baker is basically cinema's Louis Theroux, as his films tend to simply and objectively point their cameras at amusing, unusual smalltown American realities, and all you can do is sit there trying to figure the characters out. His latest movie 'Red Rocket,' is about a struggling porn actor (and grade-a misogynist asshole) Mikey (Simon Rex) who returns to his Texas hometown. Initially, he comes back to stay with his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), but he quickly sets about dealing weed, using a vulnerable schoolfriend for rides around, and grooming a young girl nicknamed Strawberry (Suzanna Son) in the hope she'll get him back into the industry.
The thing about Baker though is that he never judges his characters - there's no ominous music to undermine what Mikey is doing, and, just like in most of real life, he's never overtly menacing or evil. Instead, he and Rex's performance simply tease us to make our own judgement about him - initially with a parody introduction, and then largely with the fact that he goes around moaning about his misfortunes, passing the blame onto others, and acting like a saviour who's just trying to catch his big break even whilst doing those extremely horrible, self-serving, manipulative things.
The people around him are equally realistic; struggling folk who are just trying to make the best for themselves in a country that's forgotten them. His wife resorts to potentially dangerous sex work, Strawberry is caught up in that false Springsteen dream of smalltown escape, his schoolfriend dons a fake army uniform to feel respected in public, and all the while the sirens and hum of the town's oil refinery provide a backdrop along with the occasional TV message from Trump and Clinton's election race. Baker's camera takes the attitude of Theroux's raised eyebrow to all of that - it simply leaves the subjects unprovoked and unredeemed for us to make our own judgements about their situations.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: As it is just a piece of observation, your engagement is almost entirely spent figuring these folks out, and nothing more. I wouldn't go as far as to call it a hangout movie in that sense (the character relationships are at least tested and changed throughout the course of the film) but there are certainly no arcs to be had, and once you feel you have a handle on everything on screen, you are largely sat there in anticipation of a redemption that never comes.
VERDICT: Like all of Sean Baker's movies, 'Red Rocket,' is just a portrait that presents and never judges its smalltown American subjects, even the despicable lead.