Sean Baker has been on a roll with his last few films. He’s heavy, but he wins me over because he makes me love his characters, all of whom are fringe throwaways — illegal migrants, petty thieves, sex workers, transgenders, drug addicts, dirty little kids — getting by in an economically hostile environment. He quietly but powerfully makes his points about benevolence in contemporary America. His films have gotten progressively better, too.
Unlike what I’m used to seeing from Baker and longtime screenwriting partner Chris Bergoch, however, Red Rocket is a bona fide comedy, something that turns out to be a refreshing move. Baker still does what he does, but this time he allows us to laugh — or at least roll our eyes — at his protagonist, hustling washed up porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who can’t seem to stop himself from making boneheaded decisions.
Out of the blue, Mikey shows up bloody and naked at the home of his estranged wife, ex costar and current meth head Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother (Brenda Deiss) in Texas City, a dinky no-star town lodged somewhere along the Texas Gulf Coast. He moves in. He gets a job selling weed for local matriarch dealer Leondria (Judy Hill). He smokes the weed. He gets involved with a nerdy neighbor (Ethan Darbone) and an underage freckle face donut shop clerk named Strawberry (Suzanna Son).
As usual for a Baker film, the actors are great. Rex is a perfect Mikey. He delivers a kinetic performance, turning up the charm full blast to seize on the weaknesses he senses in those around him to realize his cockamamie ploys. It works out that every woman he tries to exploit ends up using him. The sex scenes are graphic but effective, best illustrating this little twist. In fact, every male character in Red Rocket is manipulated by someone.
Mikey, of course, misses it. He’s scrappy and has some streetsmarts but he’s still not very bright. He’s likable, but only to a point. Contrary to other Baker characters, he isn’t someone you ultimately care about. I didn’t. I suppose this makes sense for a dark comedy, but it’s still a noticeable departure. In a way, it’s also a relief.
Interestingly, you do care about the female characters, and they care about each other. Deiss, who has one film to her credit and apparently is a non-professional Baker is known to employ, particularly stands out. Her Lil is more complicated than her childlike and feeble appearance suggests. Shih-Ching Tsou as donut shop owner Ms. Phan, suspicious of everyone, shines in her few scenes.
As for the ending, well, according to a Deadline interview, Baker himself expects hate mail for it. I found it to be a nice peek into Mikey’s mind, so it’s appropriate even if it’s ambiguous. I take no issue. It’s the perfect money shot for cinematographer Drew Daniels’s dreamy, sunbleached lens.
In terms of narrative, Red Rocket might be a dip down from The Florida Project (https://moviebloke.com/2017/10/03/the-florida-project/) and Tangerine (https://moviebloke.com/2015/07/28/tangerine/). Regardless, I enjoyed it on its own merits. Like Baker’s other films, it left me pondering a lot of things — the story, the characters, what the point of it all is, and most importantly what I think of what he has to say.
Incidentally, Red Rocket has the distinct honor of being the first film I saw in a theater since the coronavirus pandemic blew up in March 2020. Amusingly fitting: I had a pass for the Telluride Film Festival this year but I didn’t go because of the delta variable surge, and Red Rocket opened. I guess I was destined to see this film.
With Marlon Lambert, Brittney Rodriguez, Parker Bigham, Brandy Kirl, Dustin “Hitman” Hart, Sophie
Production: FilmNation Entertainment, Cre Film
(Landmark Century) B+