Red Rocket (2021) vivisects a piece of America – it’s a bittersweet portrayal that marks Sean Baker’s best film to date. Looking through a magnifying glass, the director unearths beauty, and raw emotions and authenticity, all channeled by some of the top performers of the 2021. This, right here, is a must-see.
Haters will probably say that Red Rocket (2021) constitutes a safe haven for Sean Baker. Indeed, as it’s been with many previous endeavors of the director – The Florida Project (2017), Tangerine (2015), Starlet (2012) or even his earlier works – the man of the hour represents the marginalized part of the country. This time it’s Mikey (Simon Rex), a washed up charmer long past his expiry date in the adult films biz. Although he boasts about Playboy mansions and receiving multiple awards for his groundbreaking performances, Mikey hit rock bottom. Having nowhere else to go, he arrives at the doorstep of his wife’s house in Texas, begging to stay for a few nights.
A few nights seamlessly transform into weeks, casting a ray of hope on Mikey that he can actually renew this neglected marriage, hence call this place home for longer. That doesn’t bode well for his landlords – his second half Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), who glower at him right from the start, already sniffing out a ruse. But the plot thickens in ways none of them expected – Mikey looks for a job, mows the lawn and so on. He’s dedicated this time.
It’s a perfect set-up for a comedy that’s fully usurped by Simon Rex, for whom Red Rocket (2021) sounds like a dream-come-true casting. Not only did Rex mess around in the same industry as Mikey (though only in his youth), but he also built a successful career mocking people like the protagonist of the film. As rapper Dirt Nasty, Rex mocks the men-focused culture, as well as the disgusting objectification of women, through ridiculously over-the-top, sex-related lyrics.
From the first scene embellished with a classic pop song by NSYNC, Rex enters every scene with contagious energy and radiating charisma. At the same time, there’s the casing of deadbeat tiredness surrounding him, which reveals the hardship he’s been through. That’s also a solid foundation for Rex to expand on in the second and third act of the film, which required the actor to dial it down. Whenever he’s on screen, Rex leads the show with confidence, so, after the Scary Movie-based career, I’m calling for a Rexassaisance.
While Simon Rex shines, the secret to Baker’s authenticity is his bold trademark move to work with non-professional actors. In Red Rocket (2021), the vast majority of the cast consists of amateurs who were, for instance, picked by the director while walking their dog. Some may call it swimming in dangerous waters, and many directors wouldn’t have the skills to handle raw talent without being maladroit. Baker, however, is in his elements only when things go this way. The manner in which he directs Brenda Deiss as Lil is nothing short of magnificent, and the late debutant owns each scene, as well as delivers one of the most sensitive and heartfelt moments of the Red Rocket (2021).
However, none of the first-timers deserves to be lauded more than Suzanna Son, for whom Red Rocket (2021) marks the feature film debut. Son plays Strawberry – a Lolita-type of a character that gets in Mikey’s head pretty seriously. She’s a treasure, graceful like a nature-born celebrity that I’d compare to Sasha Lane in American Honey (2016). Strawberry appears as both a pivotal cog in the machine that puts Mikey’s story in motion, but Son also molds her role with a disarming combination of naivety, youthfulness and charm that matches the same pizazz seen in Simon Rex’s performance.
Red Rocket (2021) also expanded on what Sean Baker has fragmentarily scrutinized in his earlier films. We revisit the marginalized America, but this time Baker peaks at it from a different perspective of someone who climbed out of the pit just to return there years after. Mikey prides on his past, using it for small gains – such as free rides from his destitute neighbor Lonnie (another stellar debut by Ethan Darbone) or hacking his way into making illegal money as he used to do in his youth. You see a hustler, and that’s what draws Baker to this kind of filmmaking too. Each of his protagonists is a survivor; Mikey might not always win, but he will eventually land on his feet.
In that sense, Sean Baker challenges the stigma too. Red Rocket (2021) is an ode to never giving up. Although Mikey’s path isn’t filled with only commendable efforts – truth be told, some of them are plain reprehensible – one cannot deny the man’s dedication. For that reason, and due to Simon Rex’s electrifying performance, Mikey is the protagonist we shouldn’t sympathize with, yet do it nonetheless.
This is also a curious addition to what Bryce Wagoner’s After Porn Ends (2012) documentary film investigated. Baker touches on the topic of broken dreams and how the industry devours hundreds of women who are lied to and abused. But he balances the punches by acknowledging that it’s a business like any other too, present in the lives of regular people and even becoming a certain source of fame. The latter, regrettably, finds its way into the prejudice that Mikey’s marked with, as seen through a few bits when he’s trying to land himself a job. That adds to the multi-layered structure of the many issues that Baker discusses in the film.
If anything unflattering could be said about Red Rocket (2021), it’s that the film loses its sharpness in the last act. While all the technical parts – the smart, dynamic editing for example – remain in place, Baker stumbles as to where the story takes Mikey. The very finale wins your heart back, but it’s not as satisfying as it could’ve been. The above doesn’t stand in the way of calling Red Rocket (2021) a big win for Baker, and one of the best films of 2021. It’s a rare gem; an enthralling wild ride that I’m sure to revisit gladly.