Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Synopsis: A washed-up porn star clashes with his estranged wife after returning to his hometown in Texas.
Red Rocket opens on a real high with NSYNC’s hit song, “Bye Bye Bye,” but goes downhill from there. Sean Baker’s latest movie, written by Baker and Chris Bergoch, follows an adult film actor returning to his hometown in Texas and stirring up trouble. Simon Rex brings a lot of charisma to the role of Mikey Saber, one of the most terrible protagonists I’ve seen in a film in a while. But it’s unclear exactly what Baker is trying to say with this film, which was the most uncomfortable viewing experience I’ve ever had in a theater.
Mikey returns to the rundown small town and his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), who isn’t too pleased to see him. He moves back in with her and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) and starts going to interviews to try to find a job. At first it seems like he might be on the right path to turn his luck around, but then he can’t find a job anywhere because of his past career. The first part of the film feels very pedestrian and slice of life and it was easy to appreciate Rex’s charm, despite his character’s questionable ethics.
However, the film pivots to chronicle Mikey’s relationship with a 17-year-old girl who goes by the name of Strawberry (Suzanna Son). From the very beginning of their encounter, it’s clear that his intentions towards her are predatory. While Son is very talented and also has a lovely singing voice, the film also definitely sexualizes her character to an uncomfortable degree. For example, she has a line in which she tells Mikey, “I like men, not boys” and the way that the camerawork frames her body accentuates Mikey’s attraction to her.
While depiction certainly doesn’t equal endorsement, there typically needs to be something in a film that shows that the behavior being shown isn’t meant to be glorified and Red Rocket doesn’t take a hard enough stance on this considering the fact that young girls being preyed upon by older men is a very real issue.
Rex is almost too charming and likable in the role of Mikey – so much so that any point about how terrible this character really is risks getting lost. Despite getting his comeuppance in the last part of the film, he still seems so cool for most of it despite all of his awful actions that it’s easy to see that someone could come away with the wrong idea. Still, it’s an impressive performance from Rex.
The film’s irreverent sense of humor may certainly work for those who can get past the relationship that is depicted. The film would play differently for me if Strawberry was 18- or 19-years-old instead and still bring across the same ideas about Mikey’s character being manipulative without it being so uncomfortable to watch. The ending being so open to interpretation also makes the purpose of the film harder to understand.
Finally, though only a little over two hours, Red Rocket feels very long and repetitive, particularly in the middle section. (There are only so many times I can watch a man go to a donut shop before I get bored.) Despite strong performances, Red Rocket is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to say – and doesn’t take a strong enough stance towards the toxic and predatory relationship it depicts.