Red Rocket (2021)

Independent Film Festival Boston presented Red Rocket at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA last night, and before I fawn over Sean Baker’s latest film it’s worth mentioning that it’s damn good to be back. The last film I saw at the Brattle was almost exactly two years ago — The Lighthouse, with director Robert Eggers in-person — and I didn’t quite realize how much I’d missed the comfort of that room. Props to IFFBoston and the Brattle for making that return as safe as possible.

Up on the screen, though, was a homecoming of a decidedly different sort. Red Rocket follows Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a washed-up L.A. pornstar returning to his impoverished hometown of Texas City. Mikey’s a narcissistic bastard, to put it mildly, sporting a gravitational pull of destruction that threatens his old acquaintances after his 20-year absence. Mikey’s delusions imperil a new relationship, too, when he meets the 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Something about Mikey is undeniably electric, though, and so every new obstacle he faces presents an opportunity for him to redeem himself of his despicable ways. Maybe he’ll do the right thing this time, we think. Maybe he’ll turn it all around.

He never does, of course. And that’s not a spoiler by any means: from the opening scene it’s clear that Mikey’s self-absorption is so complete that he’s utterly incapable of empathy on any level. Again, though, his electric personality complicates an already icky conundrum for us as viewers. It’d be a tough ask if Red Rocket prompted us to root for Mikey outright, or if it sympathized with him blindly, so it’s almost a mercy that the film threads that needle. There may be some pity for this man, but Rocket never sides with him over those he’s continuously hurt.

If you’re a fan of Sean Baker’s previous films Tangerine or The Florida Project, then this raw and realistic depiction of a desperate America won’t come as a surprise. Everything in those previous films felt spontaneous, unrehearsed, real, and that lightning-in-a-bottle feeling almost certainly belies the actual care with which Baker and Co. crafted every beat. But there’s a maturity to Red Rocket (unrelated to the adult-themed content) that might make this Baker’s best film yet, a tall order after the brilliance of Florida Project. Here, while that spontaneity retains all of its power, the documentary-style cinematography is also peppered with snap zooms and smash cuts. The cumulative effect gels perfectly with a story about a shocking Hollywood persona dropped back into a quiet town, as if Mikey’s delusions are being passed along to us.

Another point of departure from Florida Project concerns youth and innocence. Florida was depicted almost entirely through the eyes of a six-year-old and her companions, and that perspective by turns lent a great deal of wonder and fear to the inevitable encroachment of the adult world. In Rocket, the perspective is flipped — and through the eyes of this particular adult, youth is almost something to be excised. Strawberry’s tender age (while still “legal as an eagle!”, as Mikey says) is the most sickening aspect of Rocket, and Mikey’s insistence on expediting her growth into adulthood is the most heinous on his list of flaws.

But vying for that top spot is his treatment of Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), the closest thing Mikey has to an actual friend. Both Tangerine and Florida Project had the benefit of companionship as a central tenet, and getting swept up in those adventures felt like being welcomed into an established group of friends. But Mikey’s companionship with Lonnie is entirely self-serving, based largely in the fact that Lonnie has a car and is willing to drive him around. When shit hits the fan, as it seems to frequently in Mikey’s orbit, it’s Lonnie who pays the price for Mikey’s recklessness.

All of this roils around within a highly-specific time period: the lead-in to the 2016 presidential election. Snippets of Trump and Clinton play in the background periodically, never coming to the fore but impossible to miss. A similar strategy was deployed in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, set against the backdrop of the same race in 2008. Said Baker of this choice:

“No matter what side of the aisle you’re on i the U.S., we did not see the Trump win coming… It was a major twist, almost like a movie twist. So, looking back at that time, it was almost like looking back at an innocence, looking back at a naivete. So I found that a fascinating structure of where to place my film.”

Hindsight’s 20/20, they say, and Baker’s scheme works in a subtle fashion here. We know the aforementioned shit is going to hit the aforementioned fan, both in Mikey’s world and in the world of America’s cultural consciousness on the whole, and theoretically that should rob Red Rocket of some of its unpredictability. And yet everything is so assured, anchored by a hectic and award-worthy comeback performance from Simon Rex, that the surprises never stop coming. Red Rocket is a complicated depiction of desperation and delusion, energetic and creatively pure, and it’s an experience not to be missed.

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