As the A24 logo fades in on Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” blares, its lyrics informing us not only of who former adult star Mikey Saber, played by Simon Rex is, but where he stands with his relationships. As Saber returns to his hometown of Texas City, beaten and penniless, we know we’re in for a treat; the character has a nefarious intent as he appears to be wandering. Before long, he shows up on the doorstep of his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mom, Lil (Brenda Deiss).
Within these first few minutes, Baker, who impressed us with The Florida Project, reminds us of an efficient screenwriter. The couple bickers, Lil is suspicious, but Mikey needs a couch to crash on. The script from Chris Bergoch and Baker doesn’t emphatically state why Mikey is on the run. However, we can piece together his life from his current situation: Mikey is too enterprising for his good, doesn’t handle money well, and lives off the goodwill of others.
Baker is as concerned with the characters and their motivations as he is the story’s background. As with The Florida Project, the cinematography is the apex, the fabric of Red Rocket; one could argue that the story, the characters, and locations are essential; however, Drew Daniels’ erotic, sunny work is the fabric. A recognizable influence is Kubrick’s Lolita, while the director also cited influences from Fernando Di Leo and Umberto Lenzi.
Set against the overly industrialized Texas City, TX, Mikey’s prospects for a job are pretty bleak. Lil’s crumbling house is a symbolic sign of events to come. First, Mikey must secure a job. Baker, who edited the film, accomplishes this through a series of quick cuts. Where Mikey is explaining a gap in his employment history would cause cringe in most moviegoers. The brutal honesty forces Mikey to consider how he handles the situation and eventual rejection. Baker encourages us to respect the attempt, even if we know it is in vain.
Mikey’s a fast talker, too, leading him to Leondria (Judy Hill) and her daughter, June (Brittany Rodriguez), the local drug dealer. The dialog between the three in that initial scene moves so fast, and you might miss something; it requires our attention. Mikey knows not to cross either of them, finally generating some cash.
As a center of gravity, Mikey pulls people toward him, naturally. He’s an interesting character, a function of both the script and Rex’s charms. Lexi’s next-door neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) went to high school with both of them, and Lonnie instantly recognizes Mikey, thus beginning their hilarious journey together. Lonnie isn’t necessarily on his toes; he’s too interested in Mikey’s adventures in California. A surprising action by Lonnie speaks to the ongoing political strife currently in the country; you’ll know the scene when you see it; however, Mikey’s observations of Lonnie’s antics and treatment from passersby further define the character’s self-centeredness.
A celebratory trip to the donut shop with Lexi and Lil results in Mikey falling head over heels for Suzanna Son’s Strawberry. Baker had intent when he introduced Strawberry and is the strongest-willed. Her musical performance, which reportedly won her the role, is stunning. The age difference between Rex and Son might be off-putting to some, but it is no more different than the age gap in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, now in theaters as well. The age gap between Mikey and Strawberry further feeds the sexual notions the story projects, and Baker does it with such glee.
Baker reminds us that karma is a bitch as the third act reveals the spoils of Mikey’s self-centeredness. Even with tempers and temperatures flaring, Bergoch, Baker, and Daniels lead Mikey’s build-up to that point. Filled with intent and purpose, Baker’s attention to detail, the cast and crew, deserve our respect; we appreciate Mikey’s journey, and we’re glad we didn’t have to endure it ourselves.
We just happened to witness Red Rocket’s escape velocity, and man, what a sight!
Directed by Sean Baker
Written by Chris Bergoch & Sean Baker
Starring Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, Brittany Rodriguez, Ethan Darbone
R, 128 minutes, A24/FilmNation Entertainment/Cre Film