December 27, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Sean Baker
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2016 in Texas City, Texas, the comedy/drama film “Red Rocket” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and one Asian) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A washed-up and financially broke porn actor goes back to his Texas hometown, where he tries to hustle up enough money to leave town and go back to California, with the hope of making a comeback in the adult entertainment industry.
Culture Audience: “Red Rocket” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Sean Baker and tragicomic stories about people with unsavory lifestyles.
“Red Rocket” continues writer/director/producer Sean Baker’s pattern of doing raw and restless films about people who live on the fringes of American society. Baker’s movies aren’t appealing to everyone, but his biggest strengths as a filmmaker are in creating very memorable characters and making smart casting decisions. Simon Rex (an actor/rapper who’s also a former MTV VJ) is an inspired choice to play a destitute and desperate former porn actor who goes back to his Texas hometown, with the intent to get enough money to go back to California, so he can jumpstart his career in adult entertainment. Rex has his own real-life history with doing porn, since it’s not a secret that he did solo/masturbation porn videos before he became famous on MTV in the mid-1990s.
In “Red Rocket” (which Baker co-wrote with Chris Bergoch), Rex gives a “go for broke” performance, even though many viewers might grow to dislike or get irritated by his self-centered and disreputable Mikey Saber character, a drifter in his mid-40s, who always seems to be on the hustle for something that benefits himself. Baker doesn’t make movies where audiences are supposed to expect that the protagonist will go through some kind of redemption. Instead, his movies are about how the main character gets stuck in a rut and often makes things worse through a series of misguided shenanigans.
That’s exactly what goes on with Mikey, who has suddenly moved back to his working-class hometown of Texas City, Texas, after years of living in California and working as a porn actor for the past 17 years. It would be overstating Mikey’s status in the adult entertainment industry by describing him as a “porn star,” even though he would like to think that he’s a “porn star.” Mikey might be somewhat well-known to porn aficionados, but he’s not famous enough to get automatic invitations every year to the Adult Video News (AVN) Awards, which are the Oscars of porn movies.
Whatever money he made as a porn actor is long gone, because by the time Mikey moves back to Texas City (the movie takes place in 2016), he’s broke and looking to make some quick cash, even if it’s through illegal means. The first clue that Mikey gets himself into violent trouble is that he has bruises on his face, as if he recently got into a fight. Mikey has some unfinished business that he left behind in Texas City when he moved to California, but now he has to face some realities that he’s been trying to avoid. Just like a true hustler, he tries to turn things around to his advantage.
The biggest unfinished business that Mikey has in Texas City is that he’s still legally married to his estranged wife Lexi (played by Bree Elrod), who wants to get back together with him. Even if Mikey could afford to go through with the divorce, Lexi doesn’t really want to get divorced. Mikey and Lexi used to do porn together, but Lexi is no longer in the adult entertainment industry, and she doesn’t want to go back to it.
When homeless Mikey shows up unannounced at Lexi’s house, she’s initially irritated with him, but she’s generous enough to give him a place to stay. Not much is said about Mikey’s biological family members, but it’s implied that he’s an only child. It’s briefly mentioned that his single mother is in a nursing home.
Lexi lives with her mother Lily, nicknamed Lil (played by Brenda Deiss), and it’s later revealed that they both smoke heroin or another opioid on a regular basis. Mikey doesn’t really approve of this drug use, but he’s not in a position to be preachy about illegal drug activities. He smokes weed, and he ends up doing some small-time drug dealing (mostly marijuana) for a local gang involved in drug trafficking.
Mikey has done this work before in Texas City, so he asks for his old job back from the dealer in charge: a gang maven named Leondria (played by Judy Hill), who leads a group of mostly young men, but she has her young adult daughter June (played by Brittney Rodriguez) working as the gang lookout and enforcer. It’s quite problematic that Baker chose to make the only African Americans in “Red Rocket” into gangsters and drug dealers, which are unimaginative and negative stereotypes. And for a movie that takes place in Texas, which has a large Hispanic/Latino population, it’s also appalling how there’s no Hispanic/Latino representation (in terms of speaking roles) in “Red Rocket.”
When Mikey first shows up at Lexi’s place, he begs to take a shower. “I just need a place to crash,” Mikey pleads. Soon enough, he tells Lexi that he doesn’t just need a place to crash for a few days. He needs to stay for at least 180 days (or six months), which is the legal minimum requirement to establish residency in Texas.
Why does Mikey want to establish residency in Texas? He wants to collect unemployment benefits and other government benefits from the state of Texas. Until that happens, Mikey turns to drug dealing for money.
Mikey and Lexi start having sex again. For Mikey, it’s convenient sex to keep Lexi happy and for his own physical pleasure. For Lexi, it’s reunion sex, which she thinks is Mikey’s way of showing that he still loves her and wants to get back together with her. For any adult who’s watching this movie, it’s sex that will obviously not end well for someone in this movie, because someone will get emotionally hurt in the end.
And sure enough, Mikey starts to lose interest in Lexi once he meets a nubile 17-year-old named Strawberry (played by Suzanna Son), who works behind the counter of a donut shop. It’s lust at first sight for Mikey, who sees Strawberry (yes, that’s her real name) as his meal ticket out of Texas City because he wants her to do porn with him and move with him to California when he has enough money. In Texas, the minimum legal age of consent to have sex is 17, but Strawberry will soon turn 18, the minimum legal age to do porn. Slowly but surely, Mikey charms and seduces his way into Strawberry’s life. And he finds out that Strawberry, who has a kind and open heart, is not as innocent as she looks.
Lexi has another reason why she wants Mikey back in her life. She has an underage son named Eric from a previous relationship. Lexi lost custody of Eric (it’s easy to see why), and she wants to convince Child Protective Services that she’s now living a stable life as a happily married woman. Lexi puts pressure on Mikey to give their marriage another chance, but he won’t fully commit to it.
At the same time, Mikey doesn’t want to alienate Lexi too much because she’s the only person who’s giving him a place to live in Texas City. Therefore, when Mikey and Strawberry start dating and having sex, Mikey thinks it’s best to hide this information from Lexi, because he knows that she’ll get jealous and possibly kick him out of the house. Lexi has a mean-spirited temper: It’s not unusual for her to throw things during an argument at the person who’s making her angry.
“Red Rocket” has a rambling tone that reflects Mikey’s haphazard life. Unfortunately, even though the cast members’ performances are believable, the movie tends to be repetitive in showing any of these three things: arguments between Mikey and Lexi; Mikey’s tensions with the gang members/drug dealers he’s doing business with while Mikey is tempted to steal some of their money; and Mikey’s manipulation of Strawberry, who is still in high school. Strawberry lives with her single mother (who’s not seen in the movie) and seems to have a fairly stable home life, but she’s bored with her dead-end job and can’t wait to get out of Texas City.
A problematic part of “Red Rocket” is how it has a tendency to present Mikey as a loveable bad boy, when he’s just a low-life sleaze (and not a very smart one), through and through. There’s really no good excuse for why a middle-aged person would want to persuade a barely legal teenager to start doing porn. Mikey doesn’t have much to lose by doing porn, but a teenager who hasn’t really found an identity yet and might be too emotionally immature to make this decision has a lot to lose by doing porn.
Mikey doesn’t care about the consequences for Strawberry though. He’s only thinking about how much money he can make if they do porn together. If anything, “Red Rocket” has some realism in showing how young women are easily manipulated by sexual predators to do this kind of sex work. Mikey effusively compliments Strawberry by telling her how beautiful and sexy she is. He also sells her on the idea that they can live a glamorous life in California, by getting paid for having sex on camera.
It’s obvious that Strawberry still has a lot to learn about life, because she falls for Mikey’s big talk, but she’s blind to the big picture. She seems to have some awareness of how doing porn will affect her, when she says, “I’m about to have a very awkward senior year. I’m not about to have a very awkward life.” But it’s almost like she’s in denial about how doing porn could really affect the rest of her life, in terms of job opportunities, what kinds of lovers might or might not accept her porn activities, and how her involvement with porn could affect any children she might have in the future.
More experienced or more emotionally mature people would be able to see right through Mikey’s scammer ways. After all, Mikey is pretending to be a big shot porn star, when in reality, he’s essentially homeless and trying to use an inexperienced teenager to peddle her flesh for his own financial gain. How much of a loser do you have to be to think this scummy exploitation is cool?
“Red Rocket” doesn’t really condone or condemn Mikey’s sleaziness, but Baker expects audiences to show a certain type of fascination with Mikey, by making an entire movie about this type of sexual predator. The movie puts an almost comical spin on the sordid antics of Mikey, by giving the movie a lightweight pop tune as its theme song: *NSYNC’s 2000 hit “Bye Bye Bye.” Audiences are supposed to see the irony in contrasting a song from a polished boy band with the very dirty and chaotic life of Mikey.
“Bye Bye Bye” is the first song heard blaring on the movie’s soundtrack when Mikey is shown on a bus on his way back to Texas City. The song is also heard in various forms in other parts of the movie, such as when Strawberry does a compelling, stripped-down version of the song while playing piano. Making “Bye Bye Bye” the theme song to “Red Rocket” is essentially a nod to the early 2000s, at the beginning of Mikey’s porn career, so the song probably reminds him of his youth. (Rex was no longer a VJ on MTV by the time *NYSNC hit it big.)
Physically, Mikey is still in great shape, compared to other men in his age group. But the rest of his life is a mess. (Viewers will see all of Mikey’s physique in a full-frontal nude scene that Rex does toward the end of the movie.) Baker invites audiences to laugh at Mikey, as this fast-talking hustler digs himself further into a self-destructive hole. But it’s not the kind of laughter that should make people feel good because it’s about laughing at pathetic people who are caught in a cesspool of degradation, often of their own doing.
What makes “Red Rocket” worth watching is to see how Strawberry navigates her relationship with Mikey. As Strawberry, Son gives an interesting performance that’s open to interpretation. Strawberry is grounded, open-minded and independent, yet she’s also unsophisticated, insecure about her place in the world, and susceptible to Mikey’s manipulations. Therefore, viewers might see her as a teenager who’s capable of growing up fast and handling herself well, or as teenager who could get easily mixed up in situations that she might end up regretting.
Truth be told, “Red Rocket” would have been a more compelling movie to a lot of people if it had been told from Strawberry’s perspective. She’s the only character in the movie who doesn’t veer into caricature territory. Lexi becomes a screaming shrew. The gangsters/drug dealers are depicted in a very predictable way. Other characters, such as Mikey’s hometown friend Lonnie (played by Ethan Darbone), aren’t in the movie long enough to have much of a personality or an impact on the story. Lonnie is essentially a sounding board for Mikey’s bragging about his sexual exploits.
There are so many movies already about egotistical jerks who are at the center of the story. “Red Rocket” just happens to have better acting than most of these movies. Baker seems enamored with doing films about people who exist on the seedy side of life. Let’s hope his future movies are centered on a more unique protoganist than the type of overrated toxic male who doesn’t earn filmmakers’ efforts to make viewers think that he’s just “misunderstood.”
A24 released “Red Rocket” in select U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021.