Synopsis – Mikey Saber is a washed-up porn star who returns to his small Texas hometown, not that anyone really wants him back.
My Take – With his breakthrough film Tangerine (2015) and follow-up The Florida Project (2017), director Sean Baker has well proven himself to be an empathetic genius at mining lives of downtrodden people who are somehow living on the edge of society and enduring incredibly challenging circumstances.
As Indie cinema’s new go-to champion of the down-and-dusty, director Baker has been using complex stories to display an uncanny ability to carve out offbeat slices of life from American subculture, all with affection and little judgment.
In his latest original gem, which co-wrote with Chris Bergoch, he gives us another study of tough lives at the margin, but with hilariously dodgy scenario sprinkled with a dash of expected sweetness, where innocence mingles with corruption. Leisurely episodic, the film is most certainly longer than it needs to be, but director Baker‘s singular gift for street casting and imbuing a deeply embedded sense of mood molds this one into its own kind of a slow-rolling gem.
The story follows Mikey Davies (Simon Rex), a washed up porn star, who after a 17-year absence returns to his hometown of Texas City, where he drops in on his estranged wife and former onscreen partner, Lexi (Bree Elrod), who is not happy to see him, but agrees to let him crash with her and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), provided that he pays two hundred dollars a week in rent.
While Mikey immediately begins looking for work, the massive gap on his resume proves to be a hindrance for any form of employment. With doors closing fast, Mikey is forced to reconnect with Leondria (Judy Hill), the head of the local marijuana trade, for whom he used to deal to in high school, and becomes a small-time dealer, to keep the cash flow alive.
However, Mikey sees a massive opportunity when he meets Raylee (Suzanna Son) aka Strawberry, a gorgeous doughnut shop girl, who is just three weeks away from her 18th birthday, someone who can possibly Mikey’s ticket back into the LA porn industry, the only place where he feels he belongs.
What follows isn’t a love story, but more a tale of a guy for whom everything from sex to love to weed and loyalty, is just transactional. Here, director Baker and his longtime co-writer Chris Bergoch keeps things centered on Mikey’s sympathetic profile of a porn star past his prime. No doubt, Mikey is a fully despicable lead character, while the characters in Tangerine and The Florida Project are far from faultless, it’s clear that this is a necessary means for survival in a world that has forsaken them, but he conversely, manipulates out of selfish self-preservation.
Yet Mikey is hilarious and heartfelt by way of his shortcomings. He is an enchanting character whose pride shields him from the relative shambles of his surroundings. It’s easy to imagine how the Hollywood version of this story would make Mikey more likeable as the film went along. But director Baker goes the other way, constantly forcing us to confront the fact that we’re still invested in the character’s success, or at least in his redemption.
You don’t root for Mikey, exactly, but his too big for this town energy is disarmingly funny, watching the wide-eyed Mikey pedal around Texas City on a tiny bike gets a laugh every time, the deeper he digs himself into a hole of his own making.
By setting it months leading up to the 2016 election with occasional snippets overheard on TV news discuss Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, director Baker clearly wants the viewer to draw a connection between the outsize personalities of the former president and his witless but street-smart protagonist. Any audience member likely knows that Mikey is bad news, as do all the people in his life, but he’s still mesmerizing as he fires up his motor mouth and lets another self-aggrandizing monologue loose.
Even his connection with Strawberry, seems powered half by his sexual desires and half by his creepy business sense. But her genuine attraction to Mikey keeps the audience on their toes. Their romance might sound ridiculous on paper, but it just works on-screen.
Other than that, the film acts as a perfect complement to director Baker’s previous work. It humanizes sex work through its nuanced portrait, employs an unflinching realism through its incorporation of non-actors, and documents a specific region as well as its often unrecognized inhabitants.
Simon Rex, a former MTV VJ, rapper, comedian, is an inspired casting choice. Mostly remembered for his Scary Film sequel stints, Rex is the highlight of the film in which he appears alongside a similarly unlikely gallery of actors. While his description makes it easy to write Mikey off as an irredeemably slimy creep, Rex makes him absolutely impossible to hate Mikey. Being a product of the early 2000s makes Simon Rex has exactly the right desperate, sweaty edge to portray Mikey, a man with no money in his pockets and few appreciable skills. Watching him scramble back to his feet is undeniably thrilling.
Suzanna Son takes on the film’s most difficult task, toeing the line between conveying a 17-year-old’s oblivious naïveté and her own ambitions, all while being portrayed through the film’s subjective lens of an older man’s fantasy. In supporting roles, Bree Elrod, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, Marlon Lambert, Brittney Rodriguez, Ethan Darbone and Shih-Ching Tsou are also quite good. On the whole, ‘Red Rocket’ is a weirdly lovable comedy drama anchored by a magnetic performance from Simon Rex.
Directed – Sean Baker
Rated – R
Run Time – 130 minutes