There is a slang meaning for "red rocket" that I won't go in to (Google it if you must). but its an appropriate title for the latest film from Sean Baker. Baker has been on an upward trajectory himself, first making waves with the 2015 indie hit "Tangerine" (shot completely on an iPhone) and then following that up with his highly-regarded 2017 film, "The Florida Project," which landed an Oscar nomination for one of its stars, Willem Dafoe.
Baker has an uncanny knack for shining light into corners of rural, lower class America that rarely get attention, and the "deplorables" that populate these overlooked areas. "Red Rocket" fits in perfectly - thematically - with "The Florida Project" and "Tangerine" and features one of the most surprising comeback performances of this or any year.
Yes, Simon Rex - who once went by the rap name Dirt Nasty, who was a famous MTV VJ in the mid-90s and who dabbled as an actor in pornography - gives one of the year's best performances in "Red Rocket," against all odds, playing a washed-up ex-porn star. Go figure.
Mikey (Rex) is broke, down and out when he returns to his hometown of Texas City, Texas. An ex-porn star and with a rap sheet a mile long, he tries but fails to land a job - any job - especially when asked about his work history. With nowhere left to turn, he shows up on the door of his wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), who for all intents and purposes is his EX-wife yet they never actually went through with finalizing a divorce. Lexi lives with her crusty, gravely-voiced mom, Lil (Brenda Deiss) who is just as enthused to see Mikey as her daughter is (which is to say, not at all).
Mikey convinces them to just let him crash on their couch for a couple of days, which turns into a longer period of time. It's not long before he and Lexi and back in bed together, a dysfunctional situation if there ever was one. Determined to...do something, anything, with his life, Mikey begins selling weed and reunites with an old high school buddy (Ethan Darbone). But it's meeting the 17-year-old donut shop worker, who calls herself "Strawberry" (newcomer Suzanna Son), that sends him back down familiar life paths.
The great virtue (one of many) of Sean Baker is how he can present characters that many might view as "the scum of the Earth" without judgment. His movies are populated by actors that do not seem like actors at all. Mikey is not a likable guy in that we aren't necessarily rooting for him, but he is one charming son-of-a-gun, so we believe in his ability to win over others. Simon Rex plays it straight, making Mikey and the situations he finds himself in all the more hilarious and real. This is an outrageously funny movie, and just like Baker's previous films, it feels exhilarating - in a sort of voyeuristic way - to peek in on portions of our society that are often the butt of the joke. Baker finds humor, but never at the expense of his film's inhabitants...in other words, we are never laughing AT these folks, and we always leave feeling a stronger sense of empathy towards them.
Baker uses the same cinematographer he did on "The Florida Project," Alexis Zabe, and the resulting aesthetic places it in the same cinematic world. Shot on film, there is an unpleasant graininess and an endearing beauty to the work. Wide shots and odd angles set the film apart.
The film takes place in 2016, and it's not lost that in the background of everything that is happening in "Red Rocket," an historic election is unfolding on the TV screens and newspapers. This is not a political movie, but it makes a subtle political observation or two. Texas City is the sort of town - the sort of people - that would end up devoting their lives to Trump and Trumpism over the course of the next five years. Baker seems to draw lines between the desolation and absence of hope that many of these people felt...a vast community of overlooked and under-appreciated members of our society that would quite literally latch on to anything that may get them out of their current situations. When you're in survival mode, it's eat or be eaten.
"Red Rocket" flies higher than most movies in 2021, and is assuredly among the best films of the year. I suggest you hang on and just go for the ride.
Genre: Comedy, Drama.
Run Time : 2 hours 8 minutes.
Starring: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son.
Written and Directed by Sean Baker ("The Florida Project," "Tangerine").
"Red Rocket" is in theaters on Christmas Day 2021.
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