Red Rocket

Irreverence has been the hallmark of Sean Baker’s best films. But where his 2015 breakthrough Tangerine mixed farce with the grimmer realities of being a Black transgender sex worker, his new Red Rocket goes much easier. It also avoids the poisoned candy-floss look of his previous film, 2017’s The Florida Project. Baker has specialized in nonjudgmental films about sex workers and other marginalized members of society, but Red Rocket presents the predatory flip side of the porn industry, as opposed to the sweeter version shown in his 2012 film Starlet. He’s engaged in some interesting casting here as well — lead actor Simon Rex is perhaps as well-known for the handful of solo adult films he made in the mid-’90s as he is for his career as an MTV VJ in the years after. 

Baker sketches in the background of Texas City, Texas, where oil refineries are the only thriving business. Returning from California to live with his ex Lexi and her mother, Rex’s character Mikey exhausts his opportunities for work in the town with a handful of job applications — just as well, as he prefers mooching off women and dealing weed anyway. But when he meets 17-year-old Raylee (Suzanna Son) working at the local doughnut shop, he puts on as much charm as he can. They sleep together, and she’s willing to eventually move to California, with Mikey managing her debut as an adult film performer. 

Red Rocket can’t exactly present Mikey as a lovable — or even likably sleazy — dirtbag since he’s engaged in predatory behavior toward a teenage girl. Unlike the sex workers in Starlet, Tangerine and The Florida Project, he’s a man, and although he’s hardly a winner in economic terms, he’s in no danger of becoming a victim. (Baker is careful to minimize female nudity, though Rex shows his penis several times, and even runs naked down the street.) Baker’s continual resistance to place blame on his characters is laudable, but it results in a slightly bland film here. 

There are parallels here between Rex’s role and the actor’s need for a comeback vehicle, and it’s no surprise that ’N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” is Red Rocket’s theme song — played in its original form at the beginning, later by Raylee on the piano, and in reverse at the film’s end. The film is set in 2016, and scenes from Trump’s presidential run play on televisions in the background several times, although the characters don’t seem to care about it. But the similarities between Trump’s and Mikey’s mediocrity, sexism and egomania are hardly coincidental.

Rex sinks his teeth into this role as though his career as an actor depends on it, with Mikey talking a mile a minute, boasting about achievements easily proven to be exaggerated or nonexistent. (One of the film’s comic highlights is a discussion about the meaning of his “Best Oral” AVN Award, wherein a character wonders if he did anything aside from sit back and receive a blow job to earn it.) It’s anyone’s guess whether Mikey buys his own bullshit, but he seems to get higher on his own ego than he does on his ever-present joints rolled with American-flag rolling papers — and it’s also anyone’s guess whether Raylee can see through him. 

For the first time in his career, Baker repeats his ideas. The doughnut-shop setting is transplanted from Tangerine’s L.A. to Texas City. The depiction of poverty through a flashy, pop-inflected background is recycled from The Florida Project. Baker seemed more comfortable depicting the lives of Tangerine’s sex workers than he does here, and the ambiguous conclusion of Red Rocket is no match for the wild rush into Disney oblivion that ended The Florida Project. Part of the problem is that Texas City, dominated by power lines and passing trains, seems dreary and far less visually interesting than those films’ settings. Despite the film’s narrative, there’s less of a sense of danger here, and also less wild humor. Baker remains a strong director, but Red Rocket plays it safer than anyone would’ve expected. 

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