4 Stars

Sean Baker has done it once again by remarkably delivering another raw and authentic character study related to American subculture and exploration of socio economics, Red Rocket shakes up the dark comedy genre to refreshing effect. With his distinctive style and characters that are often outcasts who are products of their environments, no other filmmaker taps into being poor in America as honest, pure, or as vividly as co-writer-director Sean Baker’s 7th feature film, which is a grimly comedic portrait of an adult movie store returning to his hometown in Texas. The results are once again artful and worth mentioning that Baker’s films are worth savoring by those who embrace edgier cinema, who want an unpredictable narrative that holds a lot of rich commentary and subtext. It’s also worth mentioning that Baker’s stories and the realism on display share a lot of the same characteristics as the Italian neorealism movement, in which Baker examines how difficult economic hardships and rampant individualism create demoralization and decayed moral conditions in which characters attempt to live their lives day by day in poverty and desperation.

Though it runs longer at 130 minutes and finds Baker in a relatively more comedic mood after the devastating dramatics of Baker’s 2017 The Florida Project (Which was my favorite film of 2017), Red Rocket is a similar film about the desperations and complications that precede living in economic ruins. Like The Florida Project, this artfully made film is highly involving and uniquely crafted, once again marked by artistic flourishes, this time around Baker is not as interested in emotional payoffs that were found in the powerfully moving final act in The Florida Project that is soul crushing.

Red Rocket' First Look: Sean Baker Returns After The Florida Project | IndieWire

Indeed, the film cynically examines how individualism and the ongoing process of the American dream bleed into one’s insecurity, which leaves numerous people always projecting success, whether it’s true or not, to impress others in American society. Baker explores these ideas as TV screens continuously cover the 2016 election with speeches by then-Republican Nominee Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, in which Trump’s speeches are intercut with how the election will be rigged and how the entire establishment is failing America, repeatedly covering the 2016 election to show how Trump was capitalizing on the economic hardships caused by Bush’s wars, which led to Obama’s election victories. Baker suggests how this economic demoralization has tragically spread to America’s small towns, families, and communities.

The title Red Rocket—which refers to a dog’s erect penis is quite a title. The film stars Simon Rex in the most charismatic and radiant performance of the year as Mike, a beaten down, desperate charlatan who’s selling the illusion that he hasn’t hit rock bottom. A washed-up adult movie actor known as Mikey Saber, who travels back from Los Angeles to his hometown in a small Texas town, bruised and battered, returns to his ex-wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), in hopes she’ll let him stay at her house for a while. In a very amusing scene, during their first encounter in years, Lexi threatens to call the police if Mike doesn’t get off the property. Mike ends up persuading her to let him temporarily live there, and she agrees to let him stay on the couch. They are both still legally married, even if she has a court order stating Mikey can’t be on her property.

Red Rocket Trailer: Sean Baker's The Florida Project Follow-Up Stars Simon Rex As A Washed-Up Porn StarMikey ends up making endless promises about how he is going to pay weekly rent and how he will look for a job to Lexi and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss). In a very amusing montage, Mickey applies for jobs, only to go disastrous since he can’t provide any sources simply because his only line of work during the last 15 years was in the adult film industry. Out of desperation, Mikey ends up going to an old high school friend’s house whose mom is a local marijuana drug dealer, Leandrai (Judy Hill), to ask her if he can run and deal some weed for her again. Mikey ends up selling the weed to some local workers at the town’s oil refinery, in which we see a lot of the refinery factories, lights, and smoke in the background in the film’s visually impressive exterior shots. After finding a customer base, Mikey finds himself supporting Lexi and her mother, even finding himself having sex again with Lexi who makes him sleep on the couch after their psychical needs are met.

Red Rocket: Watch Trailer for Sean Baker's New A24 Film

As Mikey schmoozes himself through the donut shops and cannabis economy of a small town in Texas, Simon Rex is quite cunning and has an odd charm, but beneath the charm is a scoundrel and very dishonest. Baker is examining a character who is a vile person who does deplorable things. Often, a simplistic critique from others is when people say, “I didn’t like any of the characters,” Well, sometimes there need to be films that give us windows and insights into characters and environments that do make us uncomfortable. These types of people and subcultures exist, and Baker brings a fresh eye and perspective to his material. The parallels to Trump are quite evident. Mikey is always, constantly lying. He claims he’s more successful and wealthier than he actually is, brags about which women he’s been with; and creates disasters where his friends take the fall for him.

Yes, Mikey is a failed loser who holds delusions of grandeur and is truly convinced of his own lies. Through this, Baker is clearly implying that Mikey, like many others, is a tough individualist who is oblivious to the harm they inflict on others through dishonesty and manipulation. He even sells delusions of grandeur to Lexi’s neighbor and Mickey’s one-man fan, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), about the five Adult Video News awards that he received, and how he was snubbed, as he’s sold on the idea that being a porno actor has brought him such great status, which he hides his desperation from others. During a pivotal scene, we see Lonnie at a mall wearing a fake Army jacket in an attempt to beg for money, in which he’s confronted for the lie as Mikey watches in the background. Unsettled, Mikey lectures Lonnie about how uncomfortable he is with the dishonesty, as Mickey’s own hypocrisy is quite beguiling.

Red Rocket,” Reviewed: Simon Rex Can Act, but So Can Anyone | The New Yorker

While many films that are released today are in fact made by a lot of people who do come from a background of wealth and privilege, Baker is more interested in examining subcultures that are rarely touched upon in American cinema. In particular, Baker has often explored sex work in modern life. His previous films dealing with this topic include Starlet, which was about a San Fernando Valley porn actress who befriends an elderly woman, then there is Tangerine, which is about transgender sex-workers working the streets of Hollywood; The Florida Project was about a desperate mom who lived in a motel community who turned tricks to support her young daughter, and now Red Rocket, which is about a washed up porn actor who, instead of running away from his home town, returns to his hometown looking for a new opportunity.

One of the opportunities that Mikey pursues is Raylee (Suzanna Son), a freckle-faced teen who works at the local donut shop who likes to go by the name “Strawberry” due to her red hair. Mikey ends up flirting with her, only to find out she is 17 years old, and he even lies to her about where he lives and claims he’s taking care of his sick mother. The relationship will certainly make some people feel uncomfortable, as there is some strong sexual content between the two, and Baker also doesn’t pass judgment on Mikey or his hideous behavior. If anything, the Raylee character has a lot of depth, as a naive teenager who becomes a victim of Micke’s own personal gain and sees her youth as a ticket back to LA. He sees potential in her being a potential adult-movie actor, which hints at a vicious cycle for Mikey, simply because this is what led to the rise and fall of his marriage to Lexi, who also used to act in adult movies in LA with Mikey before their marriage fell into ruins. Like Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, which was also about a playboy facing consequences for his actions, Baker is more-or-less exploring how Mickey’s world is also trapped in an endless cycle where his fate is predetermined by his exact mistakes and detours.

Red Rocket (2021) - IMDb

Certainly not for everyone’s tastes, especially for audiences looking for indies that have warmer, more sympathetic characters like sentimental films such as Coda or Belfast, Baker has never been the most restrained filmmaker simply because his characters feel like they are straight out of a Jerry Springer show. However, the brilliance of Baker is just how vividly real his world building is that resembles our own. It’s a breath of fresh air that we get a rare film like this opening up at our local multi-plex and released by a reputable distributor like A24. While some aspects of the film might read or sound bad, they are filled with many pathetic and poetic moments, and they are often both engaging and empathetic. Even though we don’t sympathize with Mickey, Baker is fascinated with him, and that makes Baker such a humanist filmmaker with ethnographic sensibilities. It also helps that he is acted by Rex and newcomer Suzanna Son as Strawberry, who both easily steal the show because they both deliver such honest, natural performances that the camera feels like it is eavesdropping or observing. Each of the shots of Mikey riding his bike through puddles in outstanding tracking shots are some of the most exquisite shots of the year.

Red Rocket is easily one of the best films of the year. It’s a great humanist piece of cinema that is also edgy and not afraid to reflect on what the state of our union really is like. It’s a portrait of desperation and how the fabric of our ingrained culture of individualism, capitalism, and theft, and the facade of the American dream are carried out by charming grifters who use their tricks and methods throughout our milieu. It’s no coincidence that the choice of song in the film is the NSYNC song “Bye, Bye, Bye” which plays as a motif throughout the film, even Strawberry does a beautiful rendition of it in her room as she plays on the piano for Rex. As per Baker’s anecdote to these grifters, the best thing we can all do is band together and phase these types of people out of our existence before more damage is generated. Through his storytelling, Baker manages to say a lot of brilliant things while delivering deep themes and rich ideas about our society and socioeconomics, and his storytelling once again leaves a profound and timely impact.