When we are first introduced to Red Rocket‘s lead subject – washed-up porn star Mikey (Simon Rex) – writer/director Sean Baker frames him in such a manner that alludes to him being one of those scrappy anti-heroes whose undeniable charm is enough for us to forgive his indiscretions.
And indeed, Mikey is that (in a matter of ways), further elevated by Rex’s astonishing performance, but there’s a much darker subtext underlying what initially plays as a naturalistic, albeit heightened, comedy. A testament to Baker’s innate ability to skewer a compassionate narrative from an almost sinister angle, Red Rocket flits between its humorously dark groundings and a rather horrifically subtle commentary on the ease of grooming in the sex industry.
Set in a small town on the Texas Gulf Coast – Baker continues the tradition he originated in his previous films, Tangerine and The Florida Project, by casting predominantly non-professional actors to enhance the setting’s organic feel – “Mikey Saber”, a one-time leading male performer of the pornographic industry, has been ejected by that very foundation, leaving him penniless, homeless, and with no other option other than to crawl back home and beg for shelter with his ex-wife (Bree Elrod) and her mother (Brenda Deiss, an absolute treat).
You can imagine in a more traditionally structured film, there’d be certain narrative details laid bare as to why Mikey was ousted from the porn industry, but wisely Baker never aims for such obvious exposition, instead allowing the numerous tales Mikey recounts paint a gradual picture of a man who clearly thought too highly of himself, became too volatile and sleazy that even the adult film community no longer wanted a piece.
This sordid, predatory image that Mikey continually combats becomes particularly prevalent when he meets “Strawberry” (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old donut shop employee he is instant smitten with. Noting her nymphomaniac temperament, Mikey sees his way back into the industry, hoping that her innocent look could set him up in a managerial position, something she is all-too willing to agree to; her confidence aided by the fact that Mikey, flush with cash from selling weed, starts spinning lies as to how well connected he is and that a life in Los Angeles will be financially stable.
Considering that Red Rocket, a film essentially about a 40-something man luring his barely legal girlfriend into sex trade, remains as funny as it does, as well as continually keeping its narrative uncertain and, at times, surprising, is a further accomplishment for Baker as to his kills as a storyteller; the script co-written with regular collaborator, Chris Bergoch. It’s also of note that he doesn’t feel the need to tie up every loose end, leaving a slew of narrative strands untied, something that may irk viewers unfamiliar with Baker’s general mentality.
Though the film’s 2016 setting allows a few news story nuggets to remind us of the travesty that was Donald Trump winning the election, the film never opts to serve as a serious commentary on politics. Perhaps more of an allegory in relation to his unlikely win, but the film largely avoids such conversations, instead letting the inherent darkness of Mikey’s actions seep through its oft-candy coated visuals.
However one reacts to Red Rocket, Rex’s performance is ultimately what people will walk away discussing – though its use of *NSync’s seminal classic “Bye Bye Bye” and the particular imagery it accompanies later in the film’s 128 minute running time may be a talking point also – with the former MTV personality and predominant throw-away comedy performer tapping into a sincerity and vanity-free mind-set that has understandably earned him serious clout in the award season chatter; it’s the type of redefining career move that will hopefully maintain momentum beyond Red Rocket‘s performance.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Red Rocket is screening as part of this year’s AFI Festival, which is being presented virtually and In-Person between November 10th and 14th, 2021. For more information head to the official AFI page. Red Rocket is scheduled for a North American release on December 10th, 2021 and an Australian release on January 6th, 2022.