Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 31st, 2021
Red Rocket (Sean Baker, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Prior to Red Rocket, I had only seen director Sean Baker’s previous two features, Tangerine and The Florida Project. In both of those, Baker displayed an aptitude for brilliant location scouting, photographing dilapidated, if proud, communities of disadvantaged souls doing their best to keep their heads up high. He does it again in his new film, focusing his lens on Texas City, Texas, adjacent to Galveston on the Gulf Coast. There, we find an ostensibly retired porn star named Mikey (played by former adult-film actor Simon Rex), hiding out from his ruined life and career in Los Angeles, trying to reconnect with those who knew him when. Like the titular missile, he plows his way through everyone’s good intentions, taking what he feels he’s due, consequences be damned. It’s a wild odyssey, filled with comic and sexual (and comically sexual) shenanigans galore. By the end, we’re never sure if it has meant much of anything, or if the exploitation of characters has been worth our time, but one thing is certain: if you relax into it, Red Rocket offers one hell of a good time.
When the fortyish Mikey shows up at his ex-wife’s house, bruised and battered from a beating he took before departing the City of Angels, she (and rightfully so) wants nothing to do with him. Actually, they’re not divorced, just separated, and Lexi (Bree Elrod) is also an erstwhile porn actress, but now lives with her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), occasionally tricking on the side to help makes end meet. Mikey’s manic powers of persuasion eventually win the day, though they expect he will help out with the rent. The problem is, he can’t get a job, since all he’s been doing for the past 20 years is porn. That may not make the best résumé material, but hey, check out his online ratings and views, not to mention his awards! No one bites, so he turns to Leondria (Judy Hill), a local pot dealer who used to employ Mikey back when he was in high school. He’s ready to once more move some product, and she reluctantly gives in.
That’s great, initially, and so is living with Lexi and Lil (up to a point). Mikey even reconnects with the next-door neighbor, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), who is younger but idolized Mikey and Lexi when he was a kid. Even better, Lonnie has a car, and so can serve as chauffeur when needed, though mostly Mikey gets around on a bike he finds among Lexi’s things. Just as Baker establishes this uneasy routine, he adds the final, explosive element in the form of Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old donut-shop clerk with whom Mikey develops an instant infatuation. She, improbably, returns the interest, particularly once she discovers his career and his significant endowment. The age of consent in Texas is, in fact, 17, so there you go, for better or worse. What Strawberry doesn’t realize, however, is that Mikey sees her as his ticket back into the game, this time as a casting agent. All freckles and seeming innocence (and looking much younger than she is), she’d make the perfect new starlet. Yes, it’s disturbing, but as played here, the entire construct also fascinates.
Above all, kudos to the excellent cast, all of whom, limited-to-no screen credits or not, act their hearts out and hold our attention. Rex and Son, especially, prove riveting, their relationship’s inappropriateness only adding to the train wreck of the affair (Son may legitimately look like a teenager, but she’s in her twenties). Certain sequences prove not only hilarious, but also moving, Baker heightening our emotional reactions through quick cuts and zooms. There’s a purposeful messiness to the mise-en-scène that amplifies the hysteria. Unfortunately, despite these significant plusses, there is almost no character development. Mikey arrives an agent of chaos and emerges as such, having learned nothing in the process. Others around him may change (to a limited degree), but his narcissism, whatever its repercussions, never wavers. Still, it’s hard to look away. This rocket may detonate without fully reaching a significant destination, but the journey proves quite the ride.