Content Note: grooming
Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) used to be a rather successful porn actor, but the tides have turned for him recently. Not knowing where to turn, he ends up in his Texas hometown, on the steps of the house where his (ex-)wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) live. Despite knowing better, the two allow him to stay, at least for a while. Mikey immediately tries to find his footing again, but only really comes to life when he meets 17-year-old Raylee, called Strawberry (Suzanna Son). In her, Mikey sees the possibility of a new start.
Red Rocket may not have won me over quite as much as Baker’s earlier films, but it is astonishing in how it manages to show all of Mikey’s despicable qualities and not excusing his actions, but still keeping him kind of likeable. It’s a difficult balance to pull off, and Red Rocket does so exquisitely.
I think one of the best choices they made in the film was to use *NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye as the movie’s signature tune. Not only is it Mikey’s reaction to problems to run away (if he can’t hustle his way out of them), it’s also what most people want to tell him after only a short while. Plus, on a more meta level, the campy nature of the song and band, and the memeification it has seen in recent years gives us a good idea of the film’s sense of humor.
Some more excellent choices were made with the cast, above all Rex, Son and Elrod who were all fantastic in their own ways. Rex transports both Mikey’s narcisstic sleaziness and his charm (also, his face work in the short sequence on the rollercoaster is goosebump inducingly great). Son has the necessary innocent look for the role, combined with a sharpness that does seem to keep her one step ahead of Mikey despite his grooming (attempts?). And Elrod has a brittle vulnerability that his heart-breaking. It is mostly thanks to her Lexi that the film doesn’t lose sight of how destructive Mikey’s antics are – especially to the people he uses along the way.
As in his other films, Baker finds interesting and unusual locations and settings that reflect his characters, as well as providing political commentary. Setting the film during the 2016 US presidential election campaign and thus posing Trump next to Mikey is surprisingly insightful, but simply seeing how Lexi and her neighbors live and the areas through which Mikey moves is at least as telling.
To a certain extent, Mikey hoodwinks us just as much as he hoodwinks the people around him. It is plain as day that he is bad news, and yet we cannot turn his back on him entirely. But there is no denying that he is absolutely entertaining – at least when you don’t have to fear any consequences from his actions.
Summarizing: Very enjoyable.