Though he’s been making films for close to 20 years (and with co-writer Chris Bergoch for the last 8), it’s only in the past few years that Sean Baker has been making waves with the general public. Following the success of The Florida Project, Baker is back with another slice of the less explored factions of American life with, Red Rocket. The question is, will this dissection of a scammer extraordinaire be mis-interpreted by audiences?
Beat-up and down trodden–now former porn star–Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) shows up at his “not-so-ex” wife Lexi’s (Bree Elrod) small, Texas home. Frantic and desperate, he just needs a place to stay for a couple of days. Wanting to get himself back on his feet with nowhere else to go, he convinces Lexi and her mother to let him stay for just a few days. As he proves he is able to help out and pay rent, a few days turns into an indefinite amount of time. It even looks like Lexi is willing to mend their broken relationship. Then, whilst on a celebratory trip to the Donut Hole, Mikey crosses paths with 17 year old Riley –but her friends call her Strawberry (Suzanna Son)–, and things will never be the same.
Red Rocket is presented in a very light and playful manor. Simon Rex’s frantic snake oil salesman schtick is entertaining, but as a protagonist, it feels like too many people are going to be rooting for someone they clearly should despise. For the first half an hour or so, we witness a character that is clearly flawed, but shows that they actually might be heading down the path he’s claiming to now follow. Enter Strawberry, and that all goes out the window. Mikey doesn’t just see a young woman he intends to sleep with. He sees a little girl he can manipulate into following his every want and desire. And that is not just about his personally sexual desires. He’s looking to exploit her for his own gains in the world of pornography.
Mikey is the quintessential personification of a user and a groomer. This is how he treats everyone. He reels people in with charisma and lies, and tricks them into doing everything he wants them to do. He “befriends” Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), the next-door neighbor that Lexi used to babysit, so he can use him for car rides. But when Lonnie finds himself in a pinch, Mikey squirms into the shadows. Instead of helping Lonnie, Mikey yells at Lonnie for putting the reputation of Mikey Saber, in danger. And Lonnie just accepts that it’s his own fault.
Even though Strawberry is consensual in her part of her relationship with Mikey, she clearly sets boundaries that he promises to adhere to. But when we see Mikey on the phone with his LA connections/talking to Lonnie, we know what he intends to introduce Strawberry into. He sits in her bed and sees that she has actual talent as a singer, but all he can think about is exploiting her. And it’s all to build himself into a position of power. Not just in the relationship, but in the industry. He wants to be back in the porno limelight and Strawberry is his meal ticket.
Shortly after seeing the film, I heard someone say, “Sure, he’s horrible, but he’s so lovable you want to root for him.” No! Absolutely, not! This is what worries me. You see how much of two-faced destroyer of lives this person is. And as a viewer, this person has just bought the snake oil along with the characters. I personally would like to speak to everyone I know after they’ve seen Red Rocket, so I can stay clear of those who somehow have sided with the villain.
In many ways, while it is clear what Baker and Bergoch are trying to portray in Red Rocket through its story to its use of Trump speeches and commentary from the 2016 campaign trail (that is when the film is set), it feels like some of the attempts are not fully fleshed out. Some of the more heavily presented messages are clear from those Trump-isms to the repeated used of ‘Nsyncs, Bye Bye Bye. But others–specifically the title itself– don’t seem as thoroughly well thought out.
Let’s just get to it. If you’re unaware…the term red rocket refers to a dog’s penis. There are small scenes dedicated to Lexi’s dog. A happy-go-lucky, friendly, outside dog. The dog never goes into the house, it almost is like a stray that just lives on the porch and in the yard. There’s a notion that Mikey is the outside dog, living in the house. Only, this comparison is fleeting and almost an afterthought in the world of the film itself. Some more attention could have been given to this portion of the story, instead of random scenes that lead pretty much nowhere.
When the film premiered at Cannes and other subsequent festivals, a lot of chatter has been given to Simon Rex and how his performance is award nomination worthy. Sure, it’s interesting to see the former MTV VJ leading a film, and his performances is as they would say, electrifying–but this is not an award worthy performance, I’m sorry. Red Rocket is an interesting watch. Baker and Bergoch certainly have a way presenting normal people in a cinematic way, but I’m definitely worried that some people are going to make a hero out of a scoundrel.
Final Grade: B-