Over the years, writer/director Sean Baker has shown a proclivity for making films that explore the lives of marginalized or underrepresented groups in America. Whether with transgender sex workers in 2015’s “Tangerine” or with a mother and daughter living in poverty in 2017’s “The Florida Project,” Baker often works in environments with which he might not be inherently familiar. As such, he often casts non-actors in important roles and works closely with locals to ensure accuracy and authenticity.
His films feel dreamy and cinematic, yet vividly real, and laden with empathy for those who usually don’t receive it from the rest of the world.
With the new film “Red Rocket,” written and directed by Baker and co-written by frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch, the filmmaker takes a slightly different approach on the empathy front. “Red Rocket” takes place in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, when Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a prodigal son of sorts, returns to his hometown of Texas City after a years-long stint in Los Angeles working as an adult film star. Down on his luck and with nowhere to go, Mikey convinces his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law Lil (Brenda Deiss) to take him in, promising protection and help around the house in exchange for shelter.
Baker has still chosen to focus on the outskirts of American life. The film still has that quintessential Baker feel, with lush cinematography from Drew Daniels finding the beauty in landscapes that one might not usually consider beautiful. The film also has Baker’s signature humor, often hilarious as Mikey gallivants around the Texan coast. The difference with “Red Rocket” is the film’s clear amount of contempt for its central character, and the distance that creates between the film and audience. The film’s contempt for Mikey is framed by haphazard depictions of former President Donald Trump’s rise to power, turning Mikey into a parable of sorts that the audience can look down on rather than engaging with him as a real person. On its surface, “Red Rocket” is a compelling story about one guy’s tendency to bulldoze through the lives of everyone around him. But dig a little deeper, and it becomes a hastily tacked together attempt at understanding Trump’s America.
Mikey is the Trumpian figure in the America that “Red Rocket” portrays, a narcissistic jerk skating by on the bare minimum of charm. He’s delusional and constantly deflecting blame onto others. At one point, he names “Fast & Furious” star Paul Walker’s death as the major reason he lost a job in a “Fast & Furious” parody porno. He’s manipulative: he slinks his way back into the lives of his wife and mother-in-law, taking control over their finances and holding that dependence over their heads. He’s a predator: after forming a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old donut shop worker, he plans to whisk her off to Los Angeles and turn her into a hardcore pornstar, despite pretty clear indications from her (and you know, common decency) that it’s a bad idea.
Make no mistake, Mikey is awful. But the film’s inability to engage with him on a level beyond that creates a disconnect, looking down on him in a way that feels simplistic in the film’s overarching narrative. Baker’s previous films exude empathy for his central characters’ situations, despite any poor or wrong decisions they might make. But this time around, the film seems to delight in showing the audience just how terrible Mikey is. Characters in other Baker films feel like real people, but Mikey only serves as a symbol meant to represent something bigger than himself – the lone Trumpian figure in a sea of characters who are never really identified beyond their role as collateral damage. There’s no attempt to understand him beyond, “Gee, what a bad guy,” which in itself is a naive way to frame the larger, Trump-sized point.
Framing Mikey as a symbol feels like an especially odd choice considering the rest of the Trump narrative feels like an afterthought. Election commentary is mostly played out in the periphery. Landscapes are filled with half-visible “Make America Great Again” billboards or signs. Characters watch nomination speeches from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with zero interest, dull eyes glazed over, half on their phones, complacent in their own passivity. But the idea that these characters are not taking an active role in the political landscape around them feels a bit reductive and robs them of some agency. The film doesn’t spend enough time actually considering the election narrative to make a fully-realized point.
In general, however, the slew of characters circling Mikey’s orbit feel more in line with Baker’s wheelhouse, and while “Red Rocket” doesn’t quite work as a Trumpian allegory, it does serve as a pretty wonderful showcase for a few performers. In particular, Judy Hill as Leondria, Mikey’s marijuana dealing boss, and Brittney Rodriguez as her daughter June, steal the show every time they’re on screen. In one of the film’s best scenes, June and Mikey discuss Mikey’s adult film career, in particular whether or not he deserved the awards he’s won in the past. As Mikey blathers on about his prowess in the porn world, one boastful quip after another spewing out of his mouth, the camera steadily zooms in on June’s face. As it becomes clear to her just how dangerous this guy is, Rodriguez slowly morphs her expression from an unsure frown to a sullen scowl, before abruptly shutting Mikey up. Those are the moments where “Red Rocket” shines – when it serves as a mind-boggling romp that makes the audience, and at least a few of the characters, hip to the schemes of a low-budget, mildly charming scammer. But any attempt to connect this fictional scammer to the one who sat in the White House feels half baked.