Red Rocket Review

Throughout his career, Sean Baker’s output has focused on marginalised communities in a compassionate, humanistic, and frequently funny way. In Red Rocket he again takes his audience into the lives of those rarely seen on the big screen, this time in a comic drama that is as quietly moving as it is laugh-out-loud funny.

The film follows washed-up pornstar Mikey Saber (real surname Davies), played by Simon Rex in a revelatory performance, as he returns to Texas City following some difficulties in Los Angeles that have left him beaten and bruised. He arrives unannounced at his estranged wife and mother-in-law’s house expecting to stay over a few days while he gets back on his feet. Following a few attempts at getting a job, he winds up dealing drugs again for an old acquaintance. The rest of the film sees his attempts at building himself back up for a comeback while falling in love with a young girl called Strawberry working at a doughnut shop.

Mikey is not a likeable character. He’s a fast-talking predatory hustler whose every relationship is an exploitative one. From his wife and her mother to Strawberry and even to his neighbour Lonnie, his agenda is always to gain something from someone. Crucially, it’s in Strawberry that he seeks to make his comeback in the world of porn, exploiting an impressionable teenager who genuinely seems to love him for the sake of getting his career back together. Despite all this he is incredibly watchable, in large part due to Rex’s phenomenal performance, but also because Baker leaves the audience rooting for him to redeem himself, to see the error of his ways and change for good.

It takes real skill to evoke that in an audience, dislikeable characters by their very nature don’t evoke much sympathy, but through his interactions, audiences can feel for the sake of the other characters, their belief that he must change. He does in some way have a positive effect on those around him. His wife appears to want to reconnect, he brings more money into their home, Strawberry falls in love and the seemingly lonely Lonnie gains a friend. Mikey is unfortunately too much of a destructive force for these benefits to last long.

Set sometime in 2016, a running theme throughout the film is the turbulent American political landscape, hinted at early on in a passing shot of a MAGA billboard. Trump and Clinton speeches serve as background noise to the characters’ lives, playing on radio and TV sets in various scenes. It’s the elephant in the room, never brought to the foreground and leaving you to draw your own conclusions.

Lead actor Simon Rex, most famous perhaps for his appearances in the Scary Movie franchise, is brilliant as Mikey and deserves the career comeback he appears to be set on. Interestingly, Rex himself got his career start in porn back in the nineties before pursuing acting, working as an MTV VJ, becoming a rapper, and then getting the call from Baker. The whole cast brings naturality to their performances, their roles and characters feeling lived in and fully formed. Baker once again utilises various non-professional actors, including neighbour Lonnie who makes a remarkable first feature film appearance. Savanna Son brings balance to Strawberry, allowing her to be innocent yet streetwise in equal measure, lending heart to the story despite the tragic implications.

Sean Baker has always combined difficult subject matter with humour effortlessly, jumping from discomfort to heart-warming humanity with real skill as in his most successful film to date The Florida Project. Red Rocket may be less heart-warming and more darkly comic, but it keeps the balance Baker has established before perfectly, allowing for some genuinely tender scenes among the generally repulsive behaviour of its lead and those around him. It’s tantamount to a crime that Red Rocket was overlooked by the usual awards season suspects, though perhaps this says more about the awards ceremony than it does about Red Rocket.

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