A wave of early nostalgia immediately saturates Red rocket, Sean Baker’s latest exploration of ect-Americana, through NSYNC’s eternal hit “Bye Bye Bye”, which rings out as Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) disembarks from a bus arriving in his hometown of Texas. Unfortunately for Mikey, this wave is the same one that wins here. Having left his small Gulf Coast town to pursue adult films in Los Angeles 20 years ago, his comeback is essentially admitting defeat. But Mikey looks anything but sour, a spring in his step as he walks the desolate streets despite his precarious position. Portrayed with an alluring (though sometimes obnoxious) levity by Rex, Mikey is the focus of Baker’s most complex character study to date, while keeping the director’s focus on the power dynamics, American disillusionment. and those on the fringes of society (albeit with an air of overwhelming moral ambiguity).
After a decades-long career in the adult entertainment arena in Los Angeles, Mikey finds himself desperately strapped for cash as vacancies are scarce. Seeing no possible way to stay in California, he decides to return to a house he dramatically fled all those years ago, confusing his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). . After a tense and bitter reunion, the two women agree to let Mikey stay, in the hopes that he will pay rent and take care of the household chores. However, Mikey’s job search immediately turns out to be difficult – local employers are skeptical of the 17-year gap on his CV, remaining unsure of his professional porn celebrity confession (enthusiastically imploring them from Google “Mikey Saber XXX “without sorrow). With no way of getting an honest job or cashing unemployment checks as an out-of-state resident, Mikey falls back into his old job selling weed for local supplier Leondria (Judy Hill), who is also baffled by his return. Almost steeped in a time of regression, Mikey falls deeply in love with a 17-year-old cashier at The Donut Hole named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) – pulling him out of his plan to rekindle his relationship with his wife, instead competing to use the young girl. as a ticket back into the sex industry.
In general, Red rocket acts as a perfect complement to Baker’s previous work. He humanizes sex work through its nuanced portrait, employs flawless realism through its incorporation of non-actors, and documents a specific region as well as its often unrecognized inhabitants. Yet in some ways the film is also a separate departure. In his directorial breakthrough Mandarin and follow-up The Florida project, Baker and loyal co-writer Chris Bergoch observe slandered individuals existing on the outskirts of iconic thriving fantasy cities (Los Angeles and Orlando, respectively). In Red rocket, this dynamic is tacitly reversed. After finding prosperity in Los Angeles (though arguably still on the periphery of “respectable” entertainment), Mikey returns to a place that lacks promise. Industrial smokestacks and pothole-covered streets dominate the landscape, with affluent neighboring towns harboring an equal lack of luster compared to ramshackle rentals on Mikey’s side.
Not only is the location not idyllic, but Mikey is much more to blame for his misfortune than the other protagonists in Baker’s films. He’s still clearly discriminated against for his chosen profession, but he’s also quick to plot, whether that’s openly preparing a high school student for future prostitution or allowing others to suffer the consequences of his. reckless impulses. Although the characters of Mandarin and The Florida project are far from irreproachable – they cheat, lie, steal and betray – it is clear that this is a necessary means to survive in a world that has abandoned them. Mikey, on the other hand, manipulates out of selfishness. While this description makes it easy to write Mikey as an irreparably slimy creep, Rex brings an impenetrable air of endearing self-interest to the role that makes it absolutely impossible to hate Mikey – a performance indicative of Rex’s indelible talent. The actor’s vulnerability when it comes to revealing a shameless showbiz sensibility while wearing the (pre) skin is inextricably linked to Rex’s own adult film past and his integration into stardom VJ and Horror movie consecutive relays. He imbues the film with the kind of docu-style realism Baker perpetually strives for, but this time choosing to portray an individual who straddles, crosses, and distorts his own position of power.
Ultimately, that’s what Baker questions within Red rocket. Although he has gained a reputation for instilling a strong sense of social justice in his films – telling the stories of those who are often relegated to crude one-dimensional stereotypes (if addressed) in cinema – there is no is no clear target for conviction here. Of course, the stigma of sex work persists strongly in the community, but Mikey’s brand of sexual liberation exists at the expense of others as well. On top of that, there’s the subtle presence of Trump-era nationalism, which is never openly addressed by the characters (perhaps why Red rocket seems to be the only narrative film to effectively integrate the speeches of the ex-president), but nevertheless colors the industrial ground of Texas. No intention, action, or feeling is portrayed without a thorny ambivalence: although Strawberry’s nonchalant observation that their town once enjoyed “Black Ivory” before “Black Gold” is barely addressed, it clearly positions the sinister America’s past as a continuing influence on its insidious present. . As we become a more “socially conscious” society – often relegating “oppressors” and “oppressed” to binary poles – it becomes more difficult to relate to those who occupy moral gray areas.
As candid humor, a magnetic performance of Rex and Baker’s special attention for authenticity, Red rocket is a likeable profile of a porn star after her prime. Despite his shady nature, Mikey Saber is an enchanting character whose pride (and relative privilege) shields him from the relative mess of his surroundings, both hyperlocal and nationally. Still, Mikey is hilarious and sincere because of his flaws: Sometimes unsavory people are the funniest, sweetest, and sexiest in the world – and isn’t that just wonderful?
Director: Sean Boulanger
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Stars: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Ethan Darbone, Judy Hill
Release date: December 3, 2021 (A24)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance screenwriter based in Queens, New York. His work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine, and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan