- Director: Sean Baker
- Writer: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
- Starring: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss
It’s a shame that there’s already a 2021 film called The Worst Person In the World because it would be an apt title for Sean Baker’s newest film. Baker has become a master since 2015’s Tangerine, his breakout hit, at showcasing slices of American life that often go under-represented or unfairly depicted in film. In those films, Baker has shown a unique skill at showing the humanity of people just trying to scrape by in the unforgiving modern American landscape. Red Rocket takes that undercurrent of empathy inherent in his protagonists and rips it to shreds.
This is Baker’s most comedic film, a thorny tale of attempted redemption from a disgraced nobody. That nobody is Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a former porn star who returns to his hometown in Texas, freshly beaten-up and begging for a place to stay with his estranged wife and mother-in-law. Right from his introduction, Rex reveals a restless energy that never lets up throughout the film’s entirety. Rex, a one-time MTV VJ and star of Scary Movie‘s 3, 4 and 5, is no stranger to deranged weirdos, but Mikey Saber is a new beast entirely. The film works best as a character study of a man who simply cannot sit still or stop scheming toward his next upward move, regardless of the human consequences he leaves in his wake.
After convincing his wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) to let him stay with her, Mikey quickly begins hustling and selling weed thanks to an old connection from high school. He re-connects with Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), Lexi’s neighbor and an old friend who mostly serves as his ride from place to place. There’s a subtle through-line that Baker, who co-wrote the script with his long-time partner Chris Bergoch, throws in early on about the difficulties for regular people to find legitimate employment when the system is stacked so vertically against them. An early montage sees Mikey unsuccessfully interviewing at various minimum-wage establishments, which quickly devolves into him bragging about his time as a prolific porn star. Actually, most scenes revolve around Mikey’s rosy remembrance of his time as a porn star, though we’re never sure exactly how much is true.
It’s not long before Mikey, after a big payday, becomes infatuated with a cashier named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) at the local donut shop. The fact that she’s three-weeks away from her 18th birthday certainly doesn’t stop Mikey from spending more and more time with her – while still maintaining the façade of a rekindling with Lexi – and pursuing a romantic relationship. This is the aspect of the film that’s most likely to lose viewers; there’s a prickliness to Red Rocket that doesn’t always poke through its comedic beats. One of the film’s sadder aspects is in Strawberry’s future, which Son plays with a sweet naiveté. Nothing good can come from her relationship with Mikey, but she’s too young to see otherwise.
Hollywood has conditioned us to believe that, deep down inside, Mikey is a kind-hearted soul who’s simply doing his best to climb his way back to the top. Red Rocket makes no delusions that Mikey will have a change of heart or see the errors of his ways. But one of Baker’s finer strokes of the film is when it takes place. Only in a handful of scenes do we get a glimpse of the date but one crucial insert involves Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016. This seemingly small bit of information serves as background for the greater American landscape at the time: before Trump’s election, scumbags like Mikey were just a blip on the cultural radar. But after that fateful November election, they were emboldened, believing that even people who lie, cheat, assault women, and engage in any manner of shady activity could actually be President someday. Would I have preferred the film to delve into this subtext a little more? Sure, but Red Rocket succeeds just fine without it.
Lending more credence to Red Rocket‘s cinéma vérité approach is Baker’s use of non-actors, which occurs in virtually all of his films. Production only lasted for three weeks during the height of the pandemic in 2020, with no rehearsal time. Rex’s lines often feel gloriously ad-libbed, which only adds to Mikey’s flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants mentality. The film’s extended runtime (128 minutes) does lead to some scenes that begin to feel a little repetitive, but Rex carries the film with a magnetic spirit that few actors have pulled off this year.
Red Rocket is in select theaters now and premieres nationwide on December 24.
- Sadly, Red Rocket stands little-to-no chance of receiving Academy Awards recognition across the board. Willem Dafoe was nominated for his Supporting role in The Florida Project (and should have won!) but this film’s prickly subject matter will likely turn off awards voters.
- In a perfect world, Simon Rex would compete to win Best Actor (it can’t be understated how much Red Rocket hinges on his performance) but with at least three locks in the category, it’ll be tougher for Rex to break through.