By Richard Ades
When Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) saunters into his Texas hometown at the beginning of Red Rocket, he passes a billboard advertising Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign. This sets the time period as 2016, and it may also provide a clue that we’re about to see the tale of a master manipulator.
Here’s another clue about what’s ahead: Red Rocket is the latest film of Sean Baker (The Florida Project, Tangerine), which means it’s likely about folks scraping by in a hardscrabble and precisely detailed pocket of modern-day America.
Both clues are accurate, but they only partially prepare viewers for what’s ahead: a sex- and nudity-filled journey that will sometimes make them chuckle and other times leave them squirming in dread or discomfort.
At its center is Mikey, an ex-porn star who, when we first meet him, has $22 in his pocket and a face that shows signs of a recent beating. Upon returning to his oilfield-lined hometown for the first time in years, Mikey goes straight to the house of his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and mother-in-law, Lil (Brenda Deiss).
Far from being glad to see him, however, they greet Mikey with a mixture of hostility and suspicion that clearly is based on past experience. They agree to let him stay only after he agrees to contribute to the rent.
This, of course, means Mikey has to find a job, but that’s not so easy when your “resume” consists of X-rated videos. He eventually gives up on landing legit employment and wheedles a chance to sell weed for a friend of Lil named Leondria (Judy Hill). In no time, he’s raking in the big bucks.
Then, just as he seems to be getting his life in order and even reconciling with Lexi, he catches sight of a redheaded teenager named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) behind the counter of the local doughnut shop. He immediately sets out to win her over, but just what he wants to win her over to may send shivers down the average viewer’s spine.
The script, by director Baker and Chris Bergoch, never quite goes where you expect or, perhaps, want it to go, and the unsettled ending may leave some unsatisfied. The film also goes on a little longer than necessary. Still, its many quirky characters and indelible moments more than make up for such annoyances.
Rex skillfully anchors the tale as the glib and ruthless Mikey, and every member of the cast is equally effective, including Elrod as the tough yet vulnerable Lexi and Son as Strawberry, who’s not quite as innocent as she first seems. Other strong impressions are made by Ethan Darbone as Lonnie, a gullible neighbor who becomes Mikey’s biggest fan; and Brittney Rodriguez as June, Leondria’s sarcastic daughter.
Of the flick’s many indelible moments, one that particularly sticks out comes when Strawberry gives Mikey an impromptu rendition of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye,” which is nicely performed by Son. Anyone else would have recognized this as a clear A Star Is Born moment, but Mikey is so limited in his outlook and experience that it fails to alter the questionable future he has in store for the teen.
The moment is illuminating, disturbing and heartbreaking. Add “darkly funny,” and you have a pretty good description of the film as a whole.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Red Rocket (rated R) can be seen at theaters nationwide, including (as of Dec. 24) Columbus’s Gateway Film Center.