Sean Baker has never had problems finding cinematic drama — and a deep well of empathy — in the lives of people on the brink. To large degrees, all of his films have revolved around well intentioned folks doing the best they can in the face of debilitating financial situations. Be it Sin-Dee (Kitana Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) working the streets of LA or Halley (Bria Vinaite) doing sex work on the side to keep a roof over her daughter Moonee’s (Brooklynn Prince) head, Baker’s characters clearly hold his respect. Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), the central figure of Red Rocket, is a new type of lead for the director. One that might just test his patience.
Once a prominent porn star — he’s winner of multiple “Best Oral” awards, lest anyone forget it — Mikey falls on hard times forcing him to relocate back to Texas from his adopted home of Los Angeles. Once there he leans on his particular brand of pathetic charm to disarm his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and move back into their home. Like a conquering hero returning from battle, Mikey takes back up his old habits. He recruits his dopey, but sweet, neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) as a personal chauffeur, starts selling drugs to for local supplier June (Brittany Rodriguez) and strikes up a relationship with Strawberry (newcomer Suzanna Son), a local teenager working at the donut shop.
Like Baker’s other works, Red Rocket is a portrait of someone scraping and clawing for what they can get in an economy stacked against them. Mikey isn’t terribly concerned about that, nor does he care much for those around him, he’s just trying to get what he can from anyone that might have something to offer. Lonnie’s friendship is meaningless to Mikey, but his car is useful. Strawberry’s company is nice and all, but really Mikey views her as a ticket back into the industry that made him feel important.
In so many ways, Mikey is a departure from those toiling away within the underground economy depicted by Baker in The Florida Project or Tangerine. Those characters were on hard times, but they were doing their best and came across with some dignity. Though that may be the case for many it is not universally true and Red Rocket examines a protagonist whose motives are less pure hearted. What results is a very different movie in tone and plot.
With a central character as, at times, despicable as Mikey Saber, choices have to be made to keep people from disconnecting entirely. Baker and Rex make all those choices brilliantly, opening up Red Rocket to be lighter than its story might indicate. Baker’s script, written along side his usual collaborator Chris Bergoch, turns an otherwise unsavory story into an absurdist comedy filled with seedy jokes and Backstreet Boys songs.
Simon Rex is equally impressive in his contributions, delivering perhaps the most memorable performance of this year. He imbues Mikey with the quality of a rambunctious puppy who has just torn up the house. Sure he’s just ripped up the lives of everyone he came into contact with, but he didn’t really mean to. It’s a very small needle to thread and Rex does so with surgical precision. Combined with the witty script, Rex’s performance makes for Baker’s funniest film to date.
As great a job as the director and actor do here, Red Rocket just never manages to be as incisive as the film it follows up. That may be a matter of preference, but I found this film to be tougher to fully engage with than The Florida Project. Still, Baker is operating at a level unmatched by most any of his peers today. Red Rocket, faults and all, is a fun and biting piece of social commentary that’s undoubtedly one of the better films of this year. 8/10