Red Rocket, 2021.
Written and Directed by Sean Baker.
Starring Simon Rex, Suzanna Son, Bree Elrod, Ethan Darbone, Shih-Ching Tsou, Brittany Rodriguez, Marlon Lambert, Brenda Deiss, and Sam EidsonVicky.
Mikey Saber is a washed-up porn star who returns to his small Texas hometown, not that anyone really wants him back.
Upon returning to his impoverished Trumper Texan hometown, Simon Rex’s Mikey Saber seems relatively harmless despite being an irresponsible mooch. He is an award-winning porn star who recently got into roommate and financial troubles, forcing him to retreat from California. He claims that none of this is his fault, but considering his tendency to flat out lie; I’m not sure I believe anything he says. Nevertheless, while trying to worm his way back into a home by making up with his former co-star wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) he turned his back on and sucking up to his mother-in-law Lil (Brenda Deiss), Red Rocket plays out as a screwball, livewire comedy leaning into the charmingly obnoxious energy of Simon Rex (most known for roles in the Scary Movie franchise, also with experience in porn). He wants to make things right even if he can’t even remember that they are still married.
They see through his shit. The neighbors that allow him to make some cash selling their drugs see through his shit. Most people see through his shit. In one of the funniest scenes, Lexi decides to use HIM for sex before promptly kicking him out of her room. However, a few gullible souls within the area are willing to listen to Mikey and believe his exaggerated stories of fame. One of them is a naive and clueless man Lexi used to babysit as a child named Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), offering free rides and whatever Mikey needs in return for being in his presence and learning a thing or two. Naturally, this leads to a combination of lighthearted and some very dark shenanigans.
The other is a 17-year-old girl working at an out-of-the-way donut shop. Sadly, the mid-40s Mikey has a chance with her. So much for not being harmless.
Not that there were many reasons to like Mikey to begin with, the faded porn star grows more morally repulsive by the scene. A few minutes ago, writer and director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) achieves a semblance of sympathy for such washed-up actors, as Mikey legitimately tries to get hired doing any unflattering job he can interview for, repeatedly told no due to his career choices. Whether or not someone has starred in porn shouldn’t take away their qualifications for flipping burgers or make them a distraction when delivering food, but such is the thought process here. It’s also what Sean Baker does best; exploring unglamorous parts of America and how its inhabitants live, what makes them tick, and what they couldn’t possibly care about.
A crucial part of Sean Baker’s success is casting individuals with no acting background to elicit the most naturalistic performances possible. Even being aware of his trademark filmmaking techniques (which once again includes vibrant and colorful photography from Drew Daniels), it’s mind-blowing to discover that Suzanna Son, the lovestruck girl with daddy issues all too willing to fall for Mikey’s scheming and promises of living a higher class life together, deserves to go from social media influencer to Oscar-nominated actor. To be fair, the same should have happened for The Florida Project‘s Bria Vinaite, with one of Hollywood’s greatest casting crimes since then being not giving her more work. So don’t fail Suzanna Son, either.
One person is destined to let her down, though, and that’s Mikey. Already referring to herself with the stripper-resembling nickname Strawberry, Mikey pervertedly and filthily only sees her as a sexualized object three weeks shy of 18 that he can manipulate into the porn industry, becoming more famous than ever before. The girl’s family has failed her, the system has failed her, and Hollywood obviously sounds nice to her naïve underdeveloped brain, so she might just go along with it, if he ever has the balls to tell her what he really does for a living (hilariously, every night before going their separate ways Mikey repeatedly has her drive him into a wealthier neighborhood where he claims to reside).
If all of this sounds icky and offputting, well, good. Red Rocket is absurdly funny, but underneath the situational humor is a tragic tale of grooming that is likely depressingly common within the adult entertainment industry. Anytime a broadcast of the Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton debates appear on a TV set, it almost feels Sean Baker finger-waving that some pockets of America don’t get to be outraged at this developing relationship considering they voted in a president with similar history. Sean Baker is also aware of how uncomfortable this is, easing viewers into sexual acts between the characters that increasingly become more graphic and icky, pushing the line until it snaps. And while Mikey shows narcissistic traits and is aggressively selfish, a case could be made that his cause for doing this is not because he wants to hurt or inevitably ruin someone’s life, but to prove to the Hollywood elite that he’s not just another dumb hick. It does not justify a single thing he does, but it does suggest layers worth investigating aside from his repulsiveness.
Simon Rex integrates these aspects into the character for something fully fleshed out in all its grotesque glory. Sean Baker brings this all home in either one of the funniest or saddest endings ever. Regardless, it’s plain wrong, which is a gut-punch way signifying that Red Rocket does everything right.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com