For Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), life seems to be about running away from the disasters of your own making. And at the beginning of Sean Baker’s dive into the gutter of a movie, Red Rocket, Mikey seems to be on the run again, riding into a town on a bus that will drop him off amid the depopulated streets and smoke-belching oil refineries of Texas City. But this time he’s returning to something: The Gulf Coast port city where he grew up, a place where he called home years before he headed off to Los Angeles to pursue his calling as an adult entertainer. But despite his porn-industry success, Mikey has still come home, crashing once more with Lexi (Bree Elrod), the wife and former co-star he ditched some time ago. Lexi lives with her mom, Lil (Brenda Deiss), and they greet him as enthusiastically as they would a rodent reinfestation. Broke, desperate, dumb as a box of rocks and persistent as hell, Mikey is bad news through and through.
But he’s the kind of dirtbag who’s an engaging watch. This is due in part to some of the basic affinities of cinema as a medium, with its soft spot for fast-talking charmers and pathological con-men. But most of it has to do with Rex, who throws himself into this role with exuberant commitment, heroic immodesty and all the rude persistence of that battering ram between his legs. Mikey is both loathsome and not exactly likable in a traditional sense, and you begrudgingly admire the way he never shuts up, never backs down and almost never wears a shirt. The middle-aged performer playing him has donned several hats over his past couple of decades: actor, comedian, model, MTV video jockey, rap artist. His most famous screen credits include three of the five Scary Movie films. But Mikey Saber is currently at a much lower point of his career than Rex ever has been: There are scrapes and bruises on Mikey’s body when he turns up on Lexi’s lawn, and they won’t be the last. Still, you don’t exactly fear for his survival. He slips past Lil’s and Lexi’s defenses; a few days at their house soon turns into a month, provided he helps out with the rent. He’s less capable when it comes to landing a job, though he does worm his way back into the reluctant good graces of Leondria (Judy Hill), who, with her tough daughter, June (Brittney Rodriguez), run a weed-selling operation out of their backyard.
And nearly all these supporting players continue a Baker trend of working with non-professional actors on stories of strivers and dreamers living on the margins of society. In all his films, he’s looked at such stories with respectability, an eye that could be prurient and skeptical, but also compassionate. Think of the transgender hustlers in Tangerine, the wild children of The Florida Project — they’re all exposed to danger and humiliation, but the movies around them sees them and finds dignity in the most abject circumstances, as Baker bathes his characters in sometimes surprising warmth. And, as seen in some of those earlier movies, he and his regular co-writer, Chris Bergoch, shine a matter-of-fact light on the realities of American sex work. And while this time they continue to shy away from judgment, they don’t fully rule out the possibilities of humor, horror and outrage. Some of the movie’s more pointed conversations broach the dubious sexual politics of the porn industry, and the story’s most important development offers a pointed corrective to it. When Mikey wanders into a doughnut store one day and meets a red-haired seventeen-year-old cashier called Strawberry, a name equally suited to pastries and smut, he thinks he’s found his ticket back to California — at which point Red Rocket becomes a disquietingly clear-eyed portrait of predatory grooming in action.
But Strawberry, played by the gifted newcomer Suzanna Son, isn’t quite the doormat Mikey assumes he can walk all over. However sweet and naive, she’s more wily than she lets on, and the voraciousness of her own sexual appetite takes even Mikey by surprise. She’s not above using him as much as he uses her, and as their queasy relationship plays out — between nighttime rendezvouses in her pickup truck and weekend getaways that leave Lexi increasingly suspicious — you wonder how it’s all going to end, other than badly. You also wonder how the other characters — including Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), the friendly sad-sack who lives next door — will ultimately deal with this homegrown interloper. Red Rocket is both an intimate character study and a scrappy, carefully observed portrait of a tight-knit community. Mikey might be the first character who pops up when you think back on it, but you will also remember other faces and details: the oil riggers lining up at the doughnut shop; the quiet but unmistakable mother-daughter intimacy between Lexi and Lil.
That rich, rough-around-the-edges sense of solidarity — plus the grainy, vibrant colors of Drew Daniels’ 16mm cinematography, which proves especially alive to the intensity of hot pink frosting and burnt-orange sunsets — makes Red Rocket visually and thematically of a piece with Baker’s recent work. If the movie doesn’t achieve the heights of The Florida Project, it can hardly be faulted for that, anymore than Baker can be faulted for not making such an empathetic and incisive portrait of childhood every time he’s at bat. But Red Rocket, by contrast, goes after something else, diagnosing what might be described as a condition of permanent, willed stuntedness, a state of emotional, intellectual and moral emptiness to Mikey, and maybe someone else. This is probably where it should be mentioned that this movie takes place in the summer of 2016, as occasional background blips of Clinton-Trump election coverage pop up on living-room TVs. It’s the movie’s (iffy) attempts at a political edge, one that possibly invites the interpretation that Mikey is supposed to be a stand-in for the 45th president and his persistence self-absorption as he takes advantage of people. It’s a piece of the movie that doesn’t exactly add the ambition that it seems to think it does, nor does it make its remarks especially novel. But it’s still bracing to watch this movie in a current, years-later context, as ’N Sync’s irresistible “Bye Bye Bye” floods this movie’s soundtrack at crucial points. It’s a song that got a lot of play in the early ‘00s, when Rex was at the height of his own popularity, and like a lot of things in Red Rocket it serves more than one purpose. It’s a kiss-off ballad, a perfect choice for the story of a parasite being expelled. And it’s also a blast from the past, a not-so-fond farewell that, whether juxtaposed with Rex’s sleepy eyes or flopping junk, becomes an anthem of resurrection. Balancing the scrappy with the vibrant, the funny with the abrasive, Red Rocket finds a dynamite Simon Rex finagling his way through a messily honest journey of demanding narcissism and self-worth.
Red Rocket is playing in Select Theaters