Sean Baker does good white trash. I really don’t know how to put it in any less crude terms than that. Even when his films don’t necessarily focus on low-income white people, the air of that world lingers in the air. From the lives of Black trans women in Los Angeles in Tangerine to the serial motel hoppers in The Florida Project to his first feature Starlet, focusing on the life of a young porn star in the San Fernando Valley striking up a friendship with an 85-year-old widow, Baker’s films are hardly for the faint of heart and they exist to make you uncomfortable. And in the midst of the chaos, confusion, and general sleaziness of it all, Baker grounds and humanizes these people who are so often written off by society as “lesser than” or “trash,” as I so crassly did above.
Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is an aging porn star who finds his career in Los Angeles coming to a screeching halt as he finds himself a victim of the ever-changing adult film industry which prioritizes young, fresh faces above all else. Returning to his hometown of Texas City, Texas, Mikey finds himself sleeping on the couch of his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law, selling weed to make ends meet, and soon beginning to fall for the 17-year-old cashier at the local donut shop. Just as his life begins to gather some semblance of stability (by Sean Baker standards), the wild world of the Texas Gulf Coast throws him curveballs he couldn’t have ever prepared for.
If the plot to this film sounds sleazy, it’s because it is. That’s not an unintentional effect and the film doesn’t completely seem to cosign anything being done on screen as moral or correct, but rather gives an outside view of a community of people without any morals. There was never a time where I felt like Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch were indicating that Mikey’s infatuation with a teenager was okay, even if it made me profoundly uncomfortable regardless. Red Rocket carries its R-rating with a source of immense pride, ticking off every box it can (sans violence) and pushing it to the absolute limit. Sometimes it can feel a bit exploitative, but I also can’t imagine what you would expect in a film about an aging porn star trying to live a normal life. It doesn’t always work, but I didn’t really expect anything different.
Baker’s approach to comedy works in the natural, clearly improvised moments of dialogue between the characters who expertly, like unknown actors utilized in many of Baker’s films, blend into the world wonderfully. While I can’t say that I have any foul-mouthed, meth-addicted elderly women within my family, I saw bits and pieces of people I know within Mikey’s mother-in-law, Lil (Brenda Deiss), or within the hopelessly sweet, puppy-like nature of Mikey’s only friend, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone). We all know some people like this to some extent, and finding that in the absolute extremes that Red Rocket portrays them in is impressive.
The problem with Red Rocket is that I couldn’t find the humanity in it as easily as Baker’s other films, and the characters I could find that in, the plot seems to drag them through the mud and leave them out to die (not literally). Without that emotional connection present, I found it difficult to connect to many of the characters on an emotional level, and they never really escaped the realm of caricature…they’re virulently entertaining caricatures, but hard to relate to in any way. It almost works as a complete antithesis to something like C’mon C’mon, where this film is full of bad people doing bad things. Baker doesn’t imply that any of it is okay, but it doesn’t make it as engaging as it could’ve been without that emotional element.
The pace and movement of the Red Rocket also begins to wear thin quickly. At 128 minutes, this is a far cry from the tight, efficient 88-minute runtime of Tangerine, and you really feel it. Many of the same plot elements were being repeated, almost as to display the tedium of everyday life in a place like Texas City, but I found much of this to feel like needless filler in search of a tighter edit that kept the film moving. Don’t get me wrong, Rex and company are doing fantastic work and never feel like they’re phoning it in, nor do I think that to be the case with Baker’s direction, but there are only so many times we can replay a visit to the donut shop to hit on Strawberry (Suzanna Son) before things begin to feel a bit repetitive.
With that, I find myself strangely frustrated with much of Red Rocket. Rex plays a sleazy scumbag almost too well, and Baker is never without style or flourish and always maintains a real connection to the world he’s creating with each film he makes. Yet, Red Rocket just somewhat lacks the earnest want to do good in a terrible world that made The Florida Project great and Tangerine an unsung masterpiece of independent cinema. Still, the elements of what make a Sean Baker film unique are there, and I never felt like I knew where Red Rocket was going. I just wish it had either gotten there a lot more efficiently or used that padded runtime to give me a little more to connect with emotionally than just shock and awe. Shock and awe can be good, and in some circumstances à la Gaspar Noé films, it’s the whole schtick, but in something so much less nihilistic, asking for my emotional support, I need just a bit more.
In theaters December 3rd, 2021.
Screened during the 2021 Film Fest 919.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.