Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) has just returned to his small Gulf Coast Texas hometown, and before we are actually told anything about him, we can discern a lot just from his face and his surroundings as he sleeps on the bus, the NSYNC pop classic “Bye Bye Bye,” which ends up serving as a sort of anthem for the film, pulsing over the opening credits of director Sean Baker’s latest movie, “Red Rocket.” Mikey’s face is beat up. He doesn’t have any luggage with him, not a single belonging. After passing the factory, whose tall, smog-producing smokestacks loom large in the background of the majority of the film, Mikey walks across a run-down neighborhood to an equally run-down house, where he pleads with the two women inside to let him crash there for a couple of days. Lil (Brenda Deiss) and her daughter Lexi (Bree Elrod) are far from happy to see him, and the end of their discussion, after Lexi finally acquiesces so long as Mikey promises to find a job and pay rent, reveals that they are an estranged couple, legally still married.
“Red Rocket” has a strong sense of place and character almost as soon as it begins. Similar to Baker’s previous features, “Tangerine” (which follows prostitutes and an immigrant cab driver as their paths cross over the course of one day in Los Angeles) and “The Florida Project” (following a young single mom and her daughter as they struggle to survive on the outskirts of one of the most visited and pricey tourist destinations in the world), “Red Rocket” concentrates on a place and a people who exist on the fringes, either forgotten, ignored, or written off by the rest of the world. Trump campaign billboards (the film is set circa 2016) tower over the crumbling businesses Mikey rides past on his bicycle. But even in this apparently decaying town, no one is willing to hire Mikey, who has a large gap in his resume after spending the last 17 years working in the adult entertainment industry in LA.
The screenplay, which Baker co-wrote with his usual collaborator Chris Bergoch, is funny while occasionally recognizing the tinges of darkness that creep into the corners of every one of these characters’ lives, Mikey in particular. But a large part of why the audience is willing to go along for the ride is not because of the humor or the wild, occasionally frantic turns the story takes, but because of Rex’s performance, despite the fact that Mikey isn’t particularly likeable. But Mikey isn’t really supposed to be likeable. Mikey is an opportunist, and it’s evident from the very first time he opens his mouth. Mikey cranks up the charm in every interaction, but there’s a phoniness in the way Rex makes him speak and gesticulate that makes it clear that he isn’t a genuinely charming man, and there’s next to no sincerity in anything he says or does. He just says what people want to hear so he can get what he wants, and as soon as he can trade them in for something—or someone—better, he discards them just as quickly. He does it to convince Lil and Lexi to let him stay him. He does it to try and get a job, and when that doesn’t work out, he does it to convince local pot dealer Leondria (Judy Hill)—who, by the way, isn’t happy to see Mikey back in town either—to let him sell for her like he used to. He does it to get the young man who lives next door, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), who is fascinated by Mikey’s former porn star lifestyle, to give him rides around town in his car. And he does it when he first locks eyes with Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the pretty 17-year-old working behind the counter at the local Donut Hole.
Mikey’s developing relationship with Strawberry drives the middle section of the film, and she’s the one person he encounters that he might have some genuine affection for. But just as he uses Lil, Lexi, and Lonnie, there’s an angle to his interest in Strawberry too. She’s attractive, promiscuous, and appears interested in him, and he sees her as someone he can take back to LA and turn into a successful porn star, thereby getting him back into the business. “Red Rocket” perhaps could have been tightened up in some parts, but it’s fascinating to watch how the characters and their relationships shift and change around Mikey as time goes by. In one of the movie’s more dramatic scenes between Mikey and Lexi in particular, we get the sense that there could actually be a life in this town for Mikey. A mundane life, sure, but a life where he has a roof over his head, a little bit of money, and someone who cares about him. But just as Lexi finally starts to let Mikey back in, the rush of excitement he gets being with Strawberry causes him to drift away from her. And again, the brilliance of Rex’s performance comes into play: as easily as he dials up the charm, he can go in the complete opposite direction, his previously sweet and soothing voice hurling verbal assaults. Even when the aftermath of a tragic event looks like it might have finally broken down his hubris, finally taught him something about considering the well-being of people other than yourself, he just as quickly proves that it was always all about him.
The filmmakers remain appropriately ambivalent throughout, neither endorsing nor condemning Mikey’s actions, although they also don’t exactly portray him as succeeding. This is particularly crucial in the portrayal of Mikey’s (somewhere in his 40s) relationship with Strawberry (still a few weeks out from turning 18). It isn’t very comfortable to watch them, especially in their first interactions, when Mikey’s advances (finding out what days she works, waiting for the influx of customers to die down so he can talk to her, engaging her in conversation about what donut he should buy) feels distinctly predatory. The dynamic shifts a bit later on, after we can more confidently conclude that Strawberry is sincerely reciprocating his attentions, and that maybe she too views him as her ticket out of this town. I can’t help but question the perspective of the male creators in writing Strawberry, who ends up throwing herself at Mikey more explicitly than he does her. But someone who feels more like fantasy than reality is exactly what the Strawberry role calls for; the final shot of the film confirms that. Maybe that diminishes her somewhat as a person, weighing her more as an object or as a means to an end for this man. But Son’s performance—always curious, always charismatic, always walking a line between girlish humor and adult wisdom—gives her character more heft. And it helps that Baker surrounds his larger than life leads with characters who, despite their quirks, feel like real people (and in fact, much of the cast consists of non-professional actors).
The visual style that Baker has cultivated over his last few films is impressive in “Red Rocket” as well, as he and cinematographer Drew Daniels turn these slices of everyday American life into magical objects. The pinks and yellows of the Donut Hole, with half of the lights on its neon sign out, sparkle in the early morning sun. Faded paint doesn’t prevent the amusement park at Galveston’s Pleasure Pier from glimmering with nostalgia. The blindingly pastel pink of Strawberry’s San Leon home further delineates the hopefulness that comes with her and this other world from the dimly lit, drab, and cluttered house Lil and Lexi inhabit. Baker also edited the movie, and some truly great smash cuts help sell the chaos of Mikey’s life and some of the crazier sequences. But perhaps the best parts of the movie are when Baker just follows Mikey on his bike around town. Few filmmakers today really get under the skin of these more marginalized segments of America the way Baker does, and “Red Rocket,” which manages to be wildly funny, uncomfortable, controversial, and disturbing all at once, is further proof of that.
“Red Rocket” is now playing in select theaters, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 15. Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated R.