“Red Rocket” is a bit of a departure for Sean Baker, who has long since proven his deep sympathy for the underdog and keen eye for the personal and economic dynamics of their lives. But Mikey (Simon Rex) is less a protagonist than an anti-hero of our times. A toxic, misogynistic washed-up porn star, he doesn’t so much affect those around him as plow through their lives, leaving them to cope with the wreckage.
It’s a far cry from the grimy, at times bordering on X-rated depictions of trans sex workers in California in “Tangerine” and the impoverished hotel residents of “The Florida Project.” And this ain’t Hollywood or even Orlando, it’s a depressing, tiny town in Texas during the 2016 election, all ready and waiting for Baker’s brand of satire. So hang on. And just enjoy the soundtrack’s most repeated offering, NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.”
Mikey is back under duress, having fled Los Angeles and returning to the only place he has to go. He literally fast talks his way back into his estranged wife and mother-in-law’s house, then quickly begins selling weed to pay the bills. And eventually, chillingly ingratiating himself with the barely legal Strawberry (Suzanna Son), grooming her to be the next big porn star and his way back into the biz.
Since this is Sean Baker, the casting is perfect, with Rex no doubt drawing on his own experience in porn to give a hilariously unsettling performance (and full frontal nudity) as a man who makes so many objectively awful choices that the eventual comeuppance isn’t necessary so much as a natural result, especially when you’re a sexist idiot surrounded by a matriarchy you refuse to see, much less acknowledge as a threat. It isn’t Baker’s best work given that it gets dragged down in the daily grind of Mikey’s life, but it is a story that only Baker could tell with his trademark mix of humor, compassion, and accountability.