4.5 out of 5 stars

Sean Baker is operating in his own lane. When it comes to the current crop of working directors, Baker brings a unique perspective to his films. His movies are rooted in the humanist dramas from the American New Wave of the 1970s, but at the same time they’re extremely modern in their subject matter and depictions of life. 

Baker’s latest film, Red Rocket, features a number of recurring themes and filmmaking techniques from his nascent filmography. Like his previous films, Tangerine (2015) and The Florida Project (2017), Red Rocket is interested in a specific, often unexplored slice of Americana. From the opening scene, the world of the movie feels extremely lived-in, and somehow both familiar and unrecognisable. 

Baker’s use of unknown or even unprofessional actors only enhances these feelings. As with his previous work, Red Rocket is anchored by a key performance from a known actor, but, unlike Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project and James Ransone in Tangerine, the action of Red Rocket completely revolves around Simon Rex as a washed-up porn star named Mikey “Saber” Davies who returns from Hollywood to his hometown of Texas City, Texas.  

Rex responds to that responsibility with the performance of a lifetime. The former MTV VJ and star of goofy comedies such as Scary Movie 3 (2003) and Superhero Movie (2008) gives, for my money, the most impressive leading man performance of the year. He shoulders the weight of the story with ease as if born to play the part of Mikey.

As mentioned, Rex is surrounded by mostly unknowns and unprofessionals, giving the Texas Gulf Coast town a deep sense of place. More than any sort of concrete plot, the movie mostly follows along as Saber gets involved with shenanigans featuring his sort-of ex-wife Lexi Davies (Bree Elrod), Lexi’s mom Lil (Brenda Deiss), his well-meaning neighbour Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), a local drug dealer Leondria (Judy Hill), and a young girl who works at a nearby doughnut shop called Strawberry (Suzanna Son).

Son is the true breakout of the film. It’s her somber piano cover of NSYNC’s “Bye, Bye, Bye” that you hear played over the trailer and that she performs in the movie. This was her first film role, but you wouldn’t know it from the confidence and charisma she displays.

Saber displays a more-than-friends interest in Strawberry, grooming her to become a future performer in the adult film industry. He fills her mind with big stories of the two of them running off to Hollywood where she can become a star, just as soon as he gets enough money to pay for their way out there. Strawberry isn’t being fully misled by Saber, as she knows what she’s doing… but she’s also just 17-years-old, making Saber’s actions even more disreputable. It’s fascinating to see a movie, in 2022 no less, focus on a character with absolutely zero redeeming qualities. 

Sure, Saber is charismatic and can sometimes talk his way out of trouble, but he’s also a liar, a schemer, a criminal, and a downright bad person. Your mileage may vary with Saber’s antics, but it’s refreshing to see a modern movie with a repugnant protagonist straight out of a 1970s film. In this era of antiseptic blockbusters that treat audiences with kid gloves, and with vanishingly few movies made with adults in mind, it’s a rare thing to see. 

That’s what makes Rex’s magnetic performance so crucial. If he doesn’t strike the balance between obnoxious and charming, then the movie simply doesn’t work. You have to be sucked into Saber’s world to truly feel the chaos he creates around him as the other characters do. And chaos is an area that Baker likes to operate in. Think Bria Vinaite’s Hailey in The Florida Project or almost the entirety of Tangerine. His movies feel at home with multiple people screaming over each other at the same time. 

Red Rocket also employs this chaos. Things really hit the fan in the movie’s best, funniest, and most eye-opening scene. I won’t spoil it here, but when the long-awaited NSYNC needle drop finally happens, Baker uses it perfectly. It’s truly a sight to behold. 

Near the end of the film, Saber is once again at rock bottom. Whether he can get out of a giant mess he alone has caused one more time is the movie’s final question. Will he and Strawberry set off for California, where they will eventually settle down and strike it rich? Will Saber once again shoot himself right in the foot? 

Not even Baker can give the audience a sure answer. Grifters like Saber will always be moving, always be scheming, and always be lying to everyone in their orbit, with the potential to ruin their lives at any moment. That is, at least, until they tell him off once and for all. Bye, bye, bye, indeed.

USA | 2021 | 128 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Sean Baker.
writers: Chris Bergoch & Sean Baker.
starring: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill & Brittney Rodriguez.