Directed by: Sean Baker
Written by: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, Ethan Darbone
Released: January 6, 2022
Grade: A-

Red Rocket

Writer-director Sean Baker has a knack for finding/creating interesting characters we won’t often see on screen.  Tangerine (2015) was about a transgender sex worker looking for love and friendship, and The Florida Project (2017) was the story of a poverty-stricken mother and daughter living in a rundown hotel next to Disney World in Florida.

Baker was tapping into another curious subject, drug-user activism, but that bigger project was canned in early 2020 when COVID-19 took hold.  Not content to sit at home in Los Angeles and “ride out” the pandemic, Baker was able to dust off an old idea and make a smaller-scale movie in Texas.  The budget was a measly $1 million USD and so it was shot with largely non-professional actors, a tiny crew, and no rehearsal time.  It’s title?  Red Rocket.

The film’s chatty, extroverted protagonist, Mike Saber (Rex), has gone from rags to riches to rags.  He grew up in a poor community on the outskirts of Houston, went to Hollywood and found fame as a porn star, and pissed all his money away.  We now pick up his story in 2016 where he’s returned to his childhood home for the first time in 17 years.  With no cash, no home and no job, he’s there solely out of desperation.

I think we all know someone like Mike.  I’m not talking about being acquainted with a successful porn star… but rather more generally about a person who has perfected the art of one-way friendships.  When they need you, they’ll reach out, be nice, and worm their way into your heart.  When you need them, they cannot be found.

Mike interacts with several supporting players in Red Rocket and it’s through these exchanges that we form a more complete view of who is really is.  When telling industry tales to his porn-loving neighbour (Darbone), Mike’s narcissistic tendencies are on fully display.  He deludedly sees himself as a “celebrity” and upon finally meeting someone who can feed that view, latches on and uses it for his own gain.

It’s different when Mike is around his estranged wife, Lexi (Elrod), because he doesn’t have the upper hand.  She takes convincing but lets him stay temporarily in her home provided rent be paid.  Like a skilled telemarketer, Mike is forever pleading his sob-story case but, as Lexi has known him for so long, she sees through most of his bullshit.  That’s not to say she doesn’t have moments of weakness which he is able to exploit.

The subplot likely to generate the most discussion is one where the 30-something-year-old Mike befriends Strawberry (Son), an 18-year-old girl from a local donut shop.  The pair form a close romantic connection before Mike raises the idea of taking her to Los Angeles and helping kick start her career in the porn industry.  Does he finally care for once?  Is he genuinely in love and doing this so she can escape her current dead-end life?  Or is just Mike being Mike and looking to use her as a stepping stone to reinvigorate his own sagging career?

It’s funny to think such a great movie wouldn’t have been made if not for the pandemic.  Red Rocket has earned much critical acclaim since its Cannes Film Festival premiere and star Simon Rex was recently awarded the best actor prize by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.  It’s hard to fault Rex’s performance and his convincing portrayal of an individual who is both intriguing and irritating.

Not pushing any profound messages or viewpoints, Red Rocket is an absorbing character study that asks us to look at Mike and then reflect on our own existence.  I like the approach.