Sean Baker has an intrinsic sensibility for loving his fellow man. The character of Mikey (Simon Rex) is a colossal walking disaster. He makes terrible decisions on countless occasions. The cacophony of debacles he creates is symbolic of a nation that led itself to the brink of total societal meltdown. Placed in 2016, news beats of Donald Trump’s road to the White House play in the background of Mikey’s mother-in-law Lil’s (Brenda Deiss) house. Nobody in the film comments on Trump when he’s on the screen. Country folk (in this cinematic universe) are too concerned with their own lives to be worried about world events. With a sexual predator being rewarded on national television for his action, coupled with a pervert whose paying his mother in law’s rent by selling drugs, Sean Baker paints a loving portrait of an un-educated nation.
By no means should I like Mikey, yet I do. He’s dating a 17-year-old girl who goes by the nickname Strawberry (Suzanna Son). When not chasing underaged girls, Mikey bottom feeds from his already broke mother-in-law. Mikey’s a once-famous porno star whose degree of notoriety is up for debate. He desperately wants everyone to google him for validation. Nothing Mikey says is believable since he’s entirely untrustworthy and self-centered. By all accounts, most filmmakers would write Mikey off as a terrible human being with no redeemable qualities. Sean Baker does that but gives a charm that only he can bring to such abhorrent characters on screen.
Thank goodness for Simon Rex’s astounding performance that gives Mr. Baker’s film the heart it needs. Rex’s portrayal of Mikey reminds me of the seedy characters I’ve had to collaborate with in the entertainment business. They’re sharks, but they have an alluring charisma that can make any gullible person buy their nonsense. There’s a hook that Simon casts, which pulled me in. I knew almost everything he was saying was a fallacy, but I felt sympathy for him [..] to an extent. Mr. Rex has an innocent face where although I knew he was lying through his teeth, a part of me wanted to give him a chance. How can someone who once worked in porn find work? Selling drugs seems to be a tragic, yet logical option.
I’m not sure if Sean Baker has writing credits for many television shows or movies, but he should. Red Rocket is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen this year. This is how every Office copycat should be written. With originality. Baker’s interactions between characters might be scripted, but they seem natural, capturing the essence of how awkward life is. Yet it’s not just for gags. The uncomfortable interactions exemplify man’s inability to communicate in this world.
We attempt to be compassionate with each other until we reach the limits of our despair, rendering us something we thought we’d never be. Most characters in Sean Bakers films are either prostitutes or drug addicts. Instead of giving a big weepy scene, he observes his subjects with a degree of restraint so we can see their positive attributes. The mother in The Florida Project, for instance, is a drug addict who can’t get her life together, but we can see despite her inability to parent, the love she has for her children is contagious. The hookers in Tangerine speak and behave like someone in their position naturally would with no degree of cynicism attached to them. Mr. Baker’s approach to character examination is to watch and observe with judgment held at a reserve.
Switching from iPhones to 16mm film, Sean Baker is a man who knows how to experiment with his cameras. His usual color palette of green and orange tints creates a place full of grit and heart. The natural look of his pictures morphs into a visual style reminiscent of passing by a Stan’s Donuts in the middle of the night. Everything in the frame but the colors depict the feeling of coming off a high. You’re still feeling it, but reality begins to kick in. The switch to 16 millimeter is seamless since its technical limitations are similar to the ones you’d find on a consumer-grade camera, except Mr. Baker puts in that little extra amount of work to make his measured approach have intent beyond being different.
Accompanying Red Rocket’s distinct aesthetic is its choice of actors or lack thereof. After being in the Oscars arena, Mr. Baker’s only megastar contribution so far is Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project. Otherwise, the IMDB record for his cast’s filmography is razor-thin, and thank goodness for it. Seeing non-actors play an extension of themselves brings forth a sense of compassion that needn’t be spoken on camera. Red Rocket, like Mr. Baker’s other films, will have a healthy A24 fan club following. What more can you ask from a company who keeps delivering the goods like this? Red Rocket is like watching an unqualified conductor lead a train off its tracks. There are so many moments of shocking stupidity from Mikey’s end that you want to look away from the wreckage he created, yet you can’t help but chuckle when he keeps screwing up; what an excellent comedy of errors Simon Rex has created with his character. One worth observing with friends or in a packed theater for some shared laughter.