Red Rocket (18) *****
Turning Red (PG) ***
Having broken through with his shot-on-an-iPhone Tangerine and scored a big critical hit with The Florida Project (securing Willem Dafoe an Oscar nomination in the process), US indie filmmaker Sean Baker returns with his best film to date. Another manic exploration of lives lived on the margins, Red Rocket revolves around Mikey (Simon Rex), a washed-up porn star who returns to his Texan hometown where he weasels his way back into the house of his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss) and, shortly thereafter, a job dealing pot to the local refinery workers.
Potential salvation – at least as he defines it – comes in the unlikely form of the red-headed Strawberry, a 17-year-old waitress in the local donut shop whose ingenue-like presence may offer him a way back into the adult entertainment industry if he can persuade her to let him be her manager and break her into the business. Played with a remarkable mix of worldliness and naivety by Suzanna Son, who Baker discovered in a cinema, Strawberry is more than a match for Mikey, but not so much that you don’t fear for her future.
That should also make Mikey seem like a reprehensible piece of work, but it’s a testament to Baker’s non-judgmental approach and Rex’s disarmingly guileless performance that Mikey is also weirdly likeable, albeit in a tragic way. Indeed, you can see this in the way the other characters respond to his stream-of-consciousness conniving: no one – save for his feckless neighbour Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) – is really taken in by him. He’s tolerated the way a stray puppy is tolerated and in some respects is like a modern-day equivalent of Midnight Cowboy’s Joe Buck if Joe Buck had returned home in middle-age with his tail between his legs still convinced he could make it as a hustler.
But Baker also has Mikey cycle everywhere, which connects the film in quite a profound way to both the harsh social realism of Bicycle Thieves and the oblivious fantasy of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure – two films that respectively represent the physical and psychological reality of Mikey’s life. The tension comes from wondering at what point Mikey’s facade is going to crack as he digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole. He may lack the ruthlessness of the truly amoral, but his narcissism does have consequences, something Baker turns into sly critique of American politics by setting the film in the run up to the 2016 election. Enhanced by grainy 16mm cinematography, the world of Red Rocket is a wasteland of broken promises in which Mikey becomes emblematic of an avaricious economic system in which the only thing that trickles down to those at the bottom is the delusional self-belief of those at the top.
“Has … has the red peony blossomed?” asks the mother of Turning Red’s 13-year-old female protagonist after she locks herself in the bathroom sobbing that she’s “a monster”. As it happens, the girl, a precocious high-achiever called Mei-Lin Lee (voiced by newcomer Rosalie Chiang) literally has just turned into a giant red panda. Nevertheless, in an effort to ground the allegorical significance of this in something relatable, the awkward menstruation euphemisms are quickly compounded by Mei’s mother rushing around with armfuls of sanitary pads while her suddenly ursine daughter hides behind the shower curtain freaking out about what’s happening to her.
Sadly, this is one of the few moments in Pixar’s latest that lifts it out of the realm of all those rote coming-of-age fantasias that the animation studio cranks out when not doing sequels. Set in Toronto in the early 2000s – a time when boybands ruled the airwaves and smartphones were but a glint in Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs’s eye – the film may deserve some props for finding comically direct ways to address the biological and emotional awkwardness of female adolescence in a family film (usually it’s relegated to horror), but its bear transformation and the emphasis it places on exploring Mei’s infuriating relationship with her domineering and over-protective mother (voiced by Sandra Oh) is somewhat reminiscent of Brave.
Co-writer/director Domee Shi – who previously made the Oscar-winning Pixar short Bao – does bring some visually rich flourishes to the film that give it more of its own identity, and there’s a sweetness, too, in the way she makes Mei unapologetically obsess over her favourite boyband, 4*Town, an amusing riff on NSYNC with ear-wormy songs courtesy of Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell. But as Mei learns to control her panda alter-ego, Teen Wolf-style, the film doesn’t really seem to know what to do with the concept. A folkloric backstory reveals she might not be the only red panda in her family, but the film isn’t as emotionally or dramatically daring as Inside Out or Soul, descending as it does into a dreary monster movie homage that has no real stakes or consequences for any of the characters. Even its standard be-true-to-yourself message gets tarnished by the film having Mei learn to monetise what makes her unique.
Red Rocket is in cinemas from 11 March; Turning Red streams on Disney+ from 11 March
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