The film’s lead is reprehensible and self-aggrandizing––and mesmerizing to watch.
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.