Mikey Saber, the preening, confident chump who’s the ostensible hero of Sean Baker’s new film, Red Rocket, enters on-screen to a loud and familiar tune: “Bye Bye Bye,” by *NSync. The song is a piece of mainstream pop from yesteryear (it’s a shiver-inducing 21 years old), and its usage in this arty indie film seems laced with irony. Baker knows, though, that for all its non-subtlety, “Bye Bye Bye” is still as catchy as it was the day of its release, and he uses it to suggest the same of Mikey (played by Simon Rex): He’s his own kind of relic, rolling back into his hometown after a failed career in Los Angeles, but he’s still got a glint of charm to him.
Baker has always told small-scale stories set on the margins of America—2015’s Tangerine was a bittersweet Christmas tale about trans sex workers, and 2017’s The Florida Project was about “hidden homeless” families living in a motel. Both of those films were empathetic works about people enduring incredibly challenging circumstances—Baker, who often casts first-time actors in his work, is a master of displaying unvarnished truth on-screen. Red Rocket is far more sour than sweet, but that’s part of the point; Mikey is a reprehensible fellow, but he’s clawed his way through life by sheer force of will, and as such, the camera simply can’t look away.
Mikey is a former porn star given to bragging about his many accolades in the industry, but he has fallen on hard-enough times to have to return to his birthplace of Texas City, Texas, and knock on the door of his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod). Despite obvious enmity from Lexi and her mother (Brenda Deiss), Mikey somehow talks them into letting him crash, and from there he gets busy with a few foolish schemes—dealing drugs, hooking up with old high-school friends, and trying to worm his way into the affections of a pretty 17-year-old he meets at a local doughnut shop.
Red Rocket is set in the months leading up to the 2016 election—occasional snippets overheard on TV news discuss Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—and Baker clearly wants the viewer to draw a connection between the outsize personalities of the former president and his witless but street-smart protagonist. Any audience member likely knows that Mikey is bad news, as do all the people in his life, but he’s still mesmerizing as he fires up his motormouth and lets another self-aggrandizing monologue loose.
Rex, a former MTV VJ, rapper (he went by the moniker Dirt Nasty), comedian, and actor, is an inspired casting choice. He’s a product of the early 2000s, maybe best remembered for his role in the Scary Movie franchise or for his modeling gigs. That long gap since he was last relevant means Rex has exactly the right desperate, sweaty edge to portray Mikey, a man with no money in his pockets and few appreciable skills (except for those one might employ on a porn set). Watching him scramble back to his feet is undeniably thrilling, even though Mikey’s chronic nervous energy suggests he knows that a ton of bricks could fall on him at any second.
His connection with Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the cashier at the doughnut shop, seems powered half by horniness and half by a creepy business sense—Mikey begins to operate as a “suitcase pimp,” proposing to mold her as a new porn talent that might help him launch himself back to stardom in L.A. Strawberry is on the verge of turning 18, and she’s both wildly naive and remarkably self-possessed. (Son is one of many amateur actors in the film, but you wouldn’t know it.) Her genuine attraction to Mikey keeps the audience on their toes—Mikey’s selfishness is almost indistinguishable from his pure id, which is part of his charm and also why he’s doomed to crash and burn once again.
Their romance might sound ridiculous on paper, but it works on-screen. Baker is depicting an America filled with characters who plainly present as buffoons, but seem to skate through life nonetheless. Mikey is one of Baker’s most thought-through creations, and Rex brings him to life with terrifying honesty. Through him, Red Rocket is issuing a challenge to the audience. Are they rubbernecking, watching this car wreck of a person stumble through life, horrified by his sheer shamelessness? Or are they along for the ride, enjoying themselves in spite of his profound flaws? Baker wants the viewer to ponder these questions, and their own complicity in his ill-advised adventures.