Sean Baker has made many films about a variety of subjects. More specifically, he has made many films about many types of people. Tangerine is a film about a transgender sex worker. The Florida Project revolves around a mother and daughter living in a motel on the verge of homelessness. Prince of Broadway is about a hustler on the streets of New York. Yet every one of his films shares something in common, even though the stories being told are through radically different lenses. They’re all deeply human portrayals of people that aren’t often given the spotlight. It’s clear he finds these voices as important to the world as any, and luckily, he is a filmmaker that feels genuine when bringing these characters to life. And his latest film, Red Rocket, is no exception. It’s a slight turn for Baker in my opinion, but one that works so damn well when looking at the film as a whole that it demands applause.
From shooting on iPhones to 35mm film, or in the case of Red Rocket, 16mm, everything about Baker’s last three films feels wholly grounded in reality. Blurring the lines between fiction and real life, he also uses plenty of non-actors to double down on this sense of legitimacy. Red Rocket feels like a beautifully intimate film about an ugly man at his core, simply trying to claw his way back into stardom, or what his view of stardom might be. This man is none other than “Mikey Saber”, an adult film star who goes back home for one reason or another. Played by Simon Rex, it is a role so unbelievably raw and unique from any other this year that he should automatically be handed an Oscar nomination for it. Rex is something truly special here, for he plays a character that many have known (or at the very least, a hopefully less dark version of the character) so wonderfully you can’t help but shrivel at every other comment he makes. Mikey Saber is the guy you know who never stays quiet and is constantly stretching the truth, but you let it slide often because the confrontation of his actual truth will be way more of a hassle to deal with.
Red Rocket is deeply fascinating in a multitude of ways, but how it plays with tone is perhaps its best quality. Rex is widely known as a comedic celebrity, from starring in the Scary Movie franchise to his rapper persona known as Dirt Nasty. So, it’s not surprising that at face value, Red Rocket is an oftentimes hilarious movie, anchored by him. The film doesn’t hide the fact that Mikey is a bit of a loser, but he’s also a goofball who simply seems to be down on his luck. However, as we quickly see, he has no qualms about taking advantage of the generosity around him to the fullest extent. From his estranged wife and mother-in-law to his unassuming neighbor, Mikey takes and takes and takes for one sole purpose: escape. Both literally and figuratively, Mikey is running from something and never once stopping to confront himself. And just when you think there will be a watershed moment of self-reflection, it instead ends in self-celebration for the exact opposite. Baker does not hide the fact that this character is a deeply flawed human being. This fact is even touched on in a brilliant way by when this film takes place.
While this can be a timeless film due to its nature, it’s interesting to note that it specifically takes place leading up to the 2016 presidential election. For an era hyper-defined by liars and cheats taking what they want with no regard to those affected, the story of Red Rocket fits perfectly. Because just when this film seems as if it will be a story about someone getting back on their feet, Baker introduces Strawberry to the fold. Played by newcomer Suzanna Son, Strawberry is a 17-year-old high school student who works at a donut shop. And at first sight, Mikey is taken by her. And as if the relationship that develops in the film isn’t upsetting enough, the film doubles down on the notion as Mikey sees her as the easiest way back into stardom. Perhaps a conman such as him knows at his core that he can’t make it anywhere just with his charm. Just as a panicked person does when drowning, he needs to pull someone down in order to bring his head above water and make sure his several hundred followers and subscribers see him again.
The shift of Mikey from an adult film star down on his luck to what he ends up becoming isn’t necessarily shocking due to the nature of the film, but it is a damningly honest turn for the big screen for lack of a better term. It does feel like a bit more could be said about Mikey’s inexcusable choices made, but Baker’s lack of hand holding is certainly a move in the right direction in my opinion. Just as he left the ending of The Florida Project up for interpretation, he knows it shouldn’t be that difficult to label Mikey Saber as an inherently bad guy, no matter how funny or charismatic he may be on screen. From his fake moral code to his constantly despicable actions, it’s no secret how Baker views this character. Yet even with all this ugliness on screen, the film is simply gorgeous to look at. Shot on 16mm film, Red Rocket is a visual beauty from beginning to end. Bathed in colorful pops or dim rooms lit only by a grainy television, this feels like a home movie or documentary that has been recently uncovered but too crucial to keep hidden. With one of the best needle drops of the year and a revelatory performance from both Rex and Son, Red Rocket is a film that cannot be missed under any circumstance.