Director: Sean Baker
Released: March 11
Sean Baker’s films – The Florida Project, Tangerine – focus on marginal, American lives. He never looks down on his subjects. These depictions are full of joy and communal warmth, and yet he never lionises his characters either, not shying away from the dubious decisions that can be forced by precarity. He has the respect and empathy of an insider.
Red Rocket sees non-judgemental Baker engage in a push and pull game with regards to his protagonist’s likability. Mikey Saber returns to small-town Texas to try and hustle his estranged wife as well as other townsfolk. He has long since traded his drawl for an LA accent. But while Mikey puts on showbiz airs, he’s really back in town because he’s fallen on hard times. In LA, he was a porn star, but now he’s washed up.
Shooting on 16mm, Baker has an eye for striking details – like a flatscreen TV in the back garden of a drug dealer’s house. He often hires first-time, nonprofessional actors (as are many supporting players here) who themselves have fallen through the cracks, lending his films a documentarian flair.
In this film, however, Baker’s protagonist is played by Simon Rex, an actor with many credits. But Rex’s filmography is patchy, having veered off into comedy rap, modelling and music production. What’s more, Rex himself has also participated in some solo blue movies. With this track record of false starts, he is the perfect fit for Baker’s aesthetic of authenticity and melds seamlessly with his character. Once again, Baker’s art mirrors and mingles with real life.
Rex is electric here and carries the film. An amiable screen presence, he initially convinces the viewer that his intentions are pure, but soon it’s clear his loquacity is a smokescreen.
This moral ambiguity is one of the film’s major strengths. Having rooted for this garrulous enthusiast, our allegiance starts to falter as it slowly dawns on us how self-serving his plans are.
For Mikey, hope comes in the shape of Strawberry, a seventeen-year-old girl working in a donut shop. Grateful that she is “legal as an eagle”, he falls for her and tells her myriad lies to keep her interested in him. Things get queasier still when Mikey starts seeing porn star potential in her and tries to bring about her career, with him acting as her manager.
And yet, the film never badgers us into making up our minds about Mikey. His self-delusion and lack of self-awareness make his actions seem less despicable somehow. We understand him even when his dirtbag ways make us uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, we could do with feeling more discomfort here. While The Florida Project didn’t shy away from the tragic elements of its character’s lives, Red Rocket, intent on being mainly a comedy, spares us the full weight of the fall. Both films end with a flight of fancy, but here it acts as a buffer against things getting too heavy. If Red Rocket had just followed its narrative logic to the bitter end, it might have been as indelible as its predecessor.
To be fair, you might argue that the film avoids heavier moments because Mikey himself is a full-time responsibility shirker, but just because Mikey is incapable of grabbing the nettle, it doesn’t mean Baker should shy away from it too.
So then: another enjoyably raucous outing from Baker, even if it doesn’t pack as much of a punch as his previous masterpiece.
Words: Rory Kiberd
Illustration: Amy Lauren