By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Both Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers, The Beach Bum) and Sean Baker love representing and depicting characters best described as social outcasts on the fringe. However their styles of storytelling certainly differ in that Korine tends to blend realism with cartoonish, over-the-top elements while Baker is much more interested in more honest stories and characters. In Baker’s newest film Red Rocket, the filmmaker focuses on the life and misadventures of a former porn star who always fails to stay out of trouble. If one is looking for a story of redemption, Red Rocket is not at all that movie. In fact, Baker’s protagonist Mikey Saber is a character who lives by the seat of his pants regardless of the consequences.
The movie begins with Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) hitting near rock bottom once again. He seems to be on the run for some unrevealed misbehaviors from his recent past and seeks refuge in his hometown of Texas City, Texas. Mikey awkwardly attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) who lives with her chronically ill mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Both ladies initially refuse to help him, but his seemingly sweet boyish charm and apologetic attitude manage to convince them otherwise. Though Mikey appears to be on the road to redemption and contrition, he soon falls into familiar habits and also makes some highly questionable decisions after becoming enamored with a much younger, local doughnut shot employee who goes by the nickname of Strawberry (Suzanna Son).
Baker, who co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Bergoch, delivers another indie niche film that is absolutely funny, but in more unnerving and uncomfortable ways. Much like his previous feature The Florida Project, Red Rocket depicts a rather disturbed and troubled lead character who cannot seem to get out of his own way to get his life on the right path. Rex’s Mikey Saber is pure id with no common sense or any true desire to change his ways. He simply wants to live his life according to his own rules and primal desires with no regard to anyone else’s well-being or benefit whatsoever.
It is definitely quite a feat to make Mikey Saber such a watchable and fascinating character, despite his repugnant behavior, stupidity and selfishness. At the end of the day, Saber is an absolute scumbag, and will always be one. That is, until someone kills him or he dies because of his own stupidity. These traits will most definitely turn some people off and have them hating this movie so much. However, I must give some praise to the writing of Bergoch and Baker in addition to the skillful direction by Baker. The writer/director manages to make this movie work rather well and still entertain, despite the bad taste that the protagonist usually leaves behind.
My reaction has a lot to do with the incredible performance by actor SImon Rex. This is the first movie in which I have seen some remarkable range by the actor. There are moments where is actually likable and charming, but these are juxtaposed beautifully by his often infuriating and disgusting moments of misbehavior. Rex gives this role his all. He is an absolute tour-de-force in this film and deserves some nominations when it comes to awards season.
As for the rest of the cast, Baker and his casting department decided to select mostly lesser known actors or first time performers for the rest of the cast. Also notable in the movie is the work of Bree Elrod who stars as Mikey’s beleaguered and victimized ex-wife Lexi. As Strawberry, Suzanna Son gives an impressive performance as the young, but savvy teen doughnut shop girl who sees Mikey as a potential way out of her miserable existence in Texas City. Judy Hill and Brittany Rodriguez are great as mother and daughter drug dealers Leondra and June.
This movie will be a tough sell to audiences unfamiliar with Sean Baker’s work in cinema. However, anyone familiar with some of his previous movies, and enjoyed or appreciated them, should most certainly check out his latest offering. Red Rocket entertains as much as it disturbs and disgusts, and it is one wild, but realistic ride worth taking.