This review was originally published as part of Paste’s 2021 New York Film Festival coverage.
A wave of early aughts nostalgia immediately saturates Red Rocket, Sean Baker’s latest exploration of echt-Americana, by way of NSYNC’s eternal hit “Bye Bye Bye,” which blares as Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) disembarks a bus arriving in his Texas hometown. Unfortunately for Mikey, this wave is the same one that washes him up here. Having left his small Gulf Coast town to pursue adult film acting in Los Angeles 20 years prior, his return is essentially admitting defeat. But Mikey appears anything but embittered, a spring in his step as he walks through the desolate streets despite his precarious position. Portrayed with beguiling (though at times disagreeable) levity by Rex, Mikey is the center of Baker’s most complex character study to date—all while maintaining the director’s focus on power dynamics, American disillusionment and those on the margins of society (albeit with an added air of compelling moral ambiguity).
After a decades-spanning career in the L.A. adult entertainment sphere, Mikey finds himself desperately strapped for cash as job offers become few and far between. Seeing no possible way to stay in California, he resolves to return to a home he dramatically fled all those years ago, confounding his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). After a tensely bitter reunion, the two women agree to let Mikey stay, with the expectation that he pay rent and tend to household chores. However, Mikey’s job search proves immediately arduous—local employers are skeptical of the 17-year gap on his resume, remaining uncertain upon his confession of professional porn stardom (enthusiastically imploring them to Google “Mikey Saber XXX” sans chagrin). With no means to secure honest work or cash unemployment checks as an out-of-state resident, Mikey falls back into his old gig of selling weed for local supplier Leondria (Judy Hill), who is equally baffled by his return. Nearly entrenched in a period of regression, Mikey becomes deeply enamored with a 17-year-old cashier at The Donut Hole named Strawberry (Suzanna Son)—pulling him out of his plan to rekindle his relationship with his wife, vying instead to utilize the young girl as his ticket back into the sex industry.
As a whole, Red Rocket acts as a perfect compliment to 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. Yet in some ways, the film is also a distinct departure. In his directorial breakthrough Tangerine and follow-up The Florida Project, Baker and faithful co-writer Chris Bergoch observe maligned individuals existing on the outskirts of cities emblematic of prosperous fantasy (Los Angeles and Orlando, respectively). In Red Rocket, this dynamic is tacitly inverted. Once finding prosperity in Los Angeles (though arguably still on the periphery of “respectable” entertainment), Mikey returns to a place that lacks promise. Industrial smoke stacks and pothole-pocked streets dominate the landscape, with affluent neighboring towns harboring an equal lack of luster compared to the run-down rentals on Mikey’s side of town.
Not only is the location less than idyllic, but Mikey is far more culpable for his misfortune than other protagonists in Baker’s films. He is still plainly discriminated against for his chosen occupation, but he is also quick to connive—whether by blatantly grooming a high school girl to engage in future sex work or allowing others to take the fall for the consequences of his careless impulses. Though the characters in Tangerine and The Florida Project are far from faultless—they cheat, lie, steal and betray—it’s clear that this is a necessary means for survival in a world that has forsaken them. Mikey, conversely, manipulates out of selfish self-preservation. While this description makes it easy to write Mikey off as an irredeemably slimy creep, Rex brings an impenetrable air of endearing himboism to the role that makes it absolutely impossible to hate Mikey—a performance indicative of Rex’s indelible talent. The actor’s vulnerability when it comes to revealing a shameless showbiz sensibility while bearing (fore)skin is inextricably tethered to Rex’s own adult film past and integration into VJ-stardom and Scary Movie sequel stints. It imbues the film with the sort of docu-style realism Baker perpetually strives for, only this time choosing to depict an individual who straddles, crosses and distorts his own position of power.
Ultimately, this is what Baker is interrogating within Red Rocket. Though he’s gained a reputation for infusing a strong sense of social justice into his films—telling the stories of those often relegated to one-dimensional crude stereotypes (if they’re addressed at all) cinematically—there is no clear target for condemnation here. Sure, the stigma of sex work lingers strong in the community, but Mikey’s brand of sexual liberation also exists at the expense of others. On top of that, there is the subtle presence of Trump-era nationalism, which is never overtly addressed by the characters (perhaps why Red Rocket feels like the only narrative film to incorporate the ex-president’s speeches effectively), but nonetheless colors the industrial Texas terrain. No intention, action or sentiment is represented without thorny ambivalence: Though Strawberry’s nonchalant observance that their town once profited off of “Black Ivory” before “Black Gold” is hardly addressed, it clearly positions America’s sinister past as an ongoing influence on its insidious present. As we become a more “socially conscious” society—often relegating “oppressor” and “oppressed” to binary poles—it becomes more difficult to relate to those who occupy moral gray areas.
By way of candid humor, a magnetic performance from Rex and Baker’s careful attention for authenticity, Red Rocket is a sympathetic profile of a porn star past his prime. In spite of his sleazy nature, Mikey Saber is an enchanting character whose pride (and relative privilege) shields him from the relative shambles of his surroundings, both on hyperlocal and national planes. Yet Mikey is hilarious and heartfelt by way of his shortcomings: Sometimes, disreputable people are the funniest, sweetest and sexiest ones out there—and isn’t that just wonderful?
Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Stars: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Ethan Darbone, Judy Hill
Release Date: December 3, 2021 (A24)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan