Crass, unrepentant, and filled with unpleasant characters, Sean Baker’s Red Rocket is a challenging watch. Led by a dynamic lead performance from Simon Rex and supported by a group of talented non-actors, audiences will be rewarded. It’s one of the funniest films of the year.
Rex stars as Mikey, a down-on-his-luck porn star who returns to his Texas City, Texas hometown, looking for somewhere to live. He finds his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) living with her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) and smooth talks his way onto her couch. Mikey attempts to get a menial job around town, but every employer refuses to hire him after discovering his porn career. He is able to make ends meet by selling weed for the local marijuana dealer Leondria (Judy Hill), much to the chagrin of her daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez).(Judy Hill), much to the chagrin of her daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez).
Mikey begins paying the rent and meets 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son) working at a donut shop. Immediately attracted, Mikey begins a relationship with her and also sees her as his ticket back to adult-film stardom. As Mikey’s fortunes begin to turn, how will his relationship with Strawberry and Lexi collide, and will he find himself back on top?
Mikey is by no means a good person. His entire characterization is based on his good looks, his sexual abilities, and his ability to charm people. Obviously, his relationship with Strawberry is not only perverse but seemingly illegal. The film’s greatest trick is to fall for Mikey’s charms. Strawberry never questions her relationship and is seemingly okay with everything. Why should the audience care if Strawberry is good with it all?
Not to spoil anything, but no character grows or develops through the course of the film. The characters the audience encounters at the beginning of the film are the characters the film ends with. Growth isn’t the point. These characters are set in their ways. They don’t want to get better. They are stuck in the belief they have made only the right decisions in life and eventually, they will get what is rightfully theirs. At one point, Mikey seems to show remorse for an event he was partially the cause of. Ultimately, that regret was actually just the worry that he would be blamed for it. Once Mikey’s blame is sidestepped, he is ecstatic.
Mikey’s relationship with Strawberry is problematic. But, it’s supposed to be. Their entire relationship reinforces how Mikey is willing to manipulate others to return to his former glory. While he assures Strawberry he will avoid the uncomfortable details of the adult film world, away from her, he waxes on about how she will eventually do the things she doesn’t want to. Mikey has no one’s best interests at heart except his own.
Rex is a revelation. Mikey is a scumbag, but Rex never plays Mikey as anyone else but the conquering hero. His charisma, charm, and body are on full display for the world to see. When critics talk about actors being brave for a role, this is what they should be talking about. Very little Mikey does is redeemable, but you would never know it from the way Rex plays him and how Baker frames him. The perfect actor in the perfect role at the perfect time.
Son plays the closest thing to a sympathetic and nice character. She plays Strawberry as wide-eyed and naive but by no means the innocent victim. She is an active participant in the relationship with her and Mikey, which in turn makes the relationship seem more palatable. Not to mention, Strawberry is the only person who doesn’t treat Mikey with outright contempt. It’s a star-making performance by Son.
Elrod is the closest thing to an audience surrogate, wavering between loathing and loving Mikey from minute to minute. While she shows no initiative in her own life, Lil’s conversations with Mikey still elicit sympathy for Lexi. Elrod smartly doesn’t do too much. Hill and June are both hilarious in their brief appearances, while Deiss has some of the more heartbreaking lines.
Baker’s ability to evoke the grunge and dead-end dilapidation of small-town Texas rivals few others. Texas City isn’t clean, but it isn’t dirty either. Chain-link fences and plastic lawn chairs accent every backyard. Trump and Clinton coverage litter the local news. Despite that ever-present feed, no character has any opinion. They pass under Trump billboards without notice. They hear the news but don’t listen. It’s a conscious effort to show how this group of people have other things to worry about than something as insignificant to them as a presidential election.
Films that challenge your morality while entertaining you are hard to come by. With Red Rocket, Sean Baker and Simon Rex push terrible people into terrible situations and make it wildly entertaining. One of the funnier films of the year.