Mikey’s prospects change on a trip to the donut shop. Behind the register is a young woman who introduces herself as Strawberry (Suzanna Son), though her real name is Raylee. With bright red lips and hair made all the more radiant by her pearly skin, Strawberry becomes Mikey’s new obsession. The fact that she has a dull teen boyfriend and is 17 doesn’t matter. The boyfriend is dealt with easily enough, parking lot beatdown notwithstanding. As his relationship with Strawberry progresses, Mikey can see a way back into the porn industry that, it’s gradually revealed, he’s been ostracized from. That off-camera disagreement is just one more conflict for Mikey, a man who regularly drops in and out of them with ease and no lasting scars. Whether Lexi, Lil, Strawberry, or fawning neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) can prove as slippery is the question of the film, as opposed to any kind of redemption arc for Mikey.
As written by Baker and Chris Bergoch, Red Rocket portrays an eventful month in Mikey’s life but there’s enough world-building and mythmaking to make it seem eventful for the average person. For Mikey, his time in Texas City doesn’t feel that different from any other period. He’s got less means in this period, but the hijinks he gets up to are par for the course. He’s raw appetite blessed with an absence of introspection and an abundance of charisma, the combination of which keeps him moving forward amongst a neverending stream of people he can sway to his side. Red Rocket places everyone in the cast on a spectrum, with one end being onto his schemes in the present and the other onto his schemes at some inevitable point in the future. Even as he fills up the former end, there’ll always be someone on the latter who’s either charmed by his insinuating courtesy, intrigued by his extreme lifestyle stories, or overwhelmed by his sheer energy.
With a stated mission of destigmatizing sex work, Baker creates empathy test movies. His characters are often brittle and melodramatic and quick to anger, usually as a defense mechanism in a world that would prefer that they didn’t exist. In Red Rocket, Baker’s made his first film that lacks sympathy for his protagonist while daring the audience to have empathy for him. Baker builds up both sympathy and empathy for Mikey in the first half hour of the film by introducing him in such a low state and by showing him failing in job interviews despite his honesty about his life. As the film proceeds, Mikey’s manipulative plans from the start become apparent, as does the impossibility of him holding down a service industry job for any period of time. His goals are to string Lexi along with the hope of a reignited relationship in exchange for a place to stay, to sell the minimal amount of weed for Leondria and smoke the rest, and to entice Strawberry into a life of porn. All sympathy leaves the film through explicit ways, like the raw details of his relationship with Strawberry, and implicit ones, like a recontextualizing of an award he won during his porn star days. The very narrow path of empathy is to depict his thinking around his actions, especially around Strawberry. Mikey also got into porn at a young age, and makes no intimations that he regrets it, per a Sean Baker character. If he thought it was wrong or that he was manipulated, that would call his whole life into question. However, as previously mentioned, this isn’t a reflective guy. Baker turns empathy into a cold exercise, where a character is understandable but that understanding doesn’t lead anywhere.
Moments of real kindness are saved for characters who aren’t Mikey. Lexi is someone who knows exactly who Mikey is, and still lets herself believe that things might work out this time. Lil is in the same boat, desperate for her daughter to find happiness with a man that Lexi believes can give it to her. Leondria and her two adult children form a coherent family unit with a recognizable rapport between the patient mom, no-nonsense daughter, and oafish son. Lonnie tips so far into pathos with some of the details of his life that he becomes lovable. Strawberry is more than her beauty, a talented musician and a strong personality who knows exactly where her lines are and how to enforce them. Baker’s bottomless generosity towards his characters exists side by side with the gritty details of their lives, such that the aforementioned nuance exists alongside Lexi’s and Lil’s drug problems or Lonnie’s scams or Leondria’s criminal fiefdom. No one in Red Rocket is a caricature, a rarity when considering who the market is for an A24 indie from the director of Tangerine.
Rex dominates the proceedings in one of the top two or three performances of 2021. The greatest strength in this loud, motor-mouthed portrayal can be found in the quiet moments that Baker finds time for. There’s at least three scenes where the camera watches Mikey react, and Rex’s, and the film’s, genius exists in how many possibilities there are in what Mikey is thinking. Sometimes, a held reaction is only one thing, done exceptionally well. Other times, something close to actual love peaks through, or maybe doubt, unless that’s all filtered through Mikey’s narcissism and the doubt is about whether or not the plan will work as opposed to the rightness of the plan itself. Rex makes all things possible. The rest of the cast, non-actors or actors with skinny resumes at best, never tips that this is their first major role. Deiss does an excellent Dale Dickey impression, Darbone is incredibly grounded and realistic, and Son is revelatory in an ingenue role. Baker’s acolytes have had varying success translating their work with him into wider roles, and it would be tragic if that mixed record continued here. If Red Rocket’s supporting cast want it, there should be roles for them based off what they’re doing here.
No one makes films like Sean Baker, and Red Rocket is another demonstration of just that. There’s a level of full-scale commitment here in all aspects, from the location to the casting to the writing of Mikey. Storefronts look more authentic through Baker’s camera. He insists on turning over rocks in America and looking honestly at what’s under there. He often finds overlooked strivers barely hanging on because of circumstances beyond their control, and sometimes he finds dirtbags making their own beds. This particular creepy-crawlyNYUH6 is one of his greatest creations. A