The desperation in Red Rocket, the new film from director Sean Baker, is inextricable from its hustle. Key for both the film and its main character is embracing the latter while outrunning—or better yet, ignoring—the former. Everyone here is not judged by Baker, they just are. And as we see in the film, at least for that main character, there’s a way up and out if you move fast enough—and believe hard enough.
This understanding is what powers Mikey Saber, played with bizarre charm and intensity by Simon Rex, as he barrels back into the lives of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and a cast of characters plucked from the ground on the Texas gulf coast. Mikey arrives with little except grand aspirations and a resume as an adult film actor. As with Baker’s previous work, there’s a realness in Red Rocket that fills the frame, a world not often seen—or glamourized—elsewhere on film. An American political dimension is there too, but it merely measures how far away the national stage is from these folks. That lack of interest is again not a judgment: it’s fact. There are more pressing concerns at hand. For Mikey, that means sweeping Strawberry (Suzanna Son) off her young feet with promises of (porn) stardom. This is not a good plan, yet we do feel for Mikey as circumstances close in around him—and his actions set him up for failure. As co-written with Chris Bergoch, Baker’s nimble directorial style just keeps driving us towards that next thing. There’s little point in not going along for the ride.
The use of N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” in Red Rocket is a fitting signature. Rex’s Mikey is always coming and going on wildly different terms, leaving in a rush (or with a head-rush). The song serves too as a nostalgic reminder of Mikey’s heyday while suggesting the terms of his exit and what he’d like to say on his presumed way back to the top. Baker controls all this chaos, revealing not what’s best, but what is definitely—defiantly—a plan, laid.