I’m so delighted that storytellers like Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch exist. Truly, they’re cinematic savants, able to find brilliant tales set within society’s fringes. If there’s a person who no one else would think of making a film about, Baker and Bergoch are almost guaranteed to find the beauty and the heartbreak in their situation. Red Rocket is yet another example of this. In fact, they’ve found riotous comedy in a situation almost no one else would play for laughs, while retaining all of their trademark heart. Playing at the 59th New York Film Festival, Red Rocket is not just the best of the fest, but one of the crowning achievements of 2021. All hail these slightly demented geniuses.
Red Rocket can certainly be read in a political context, but some of the earliest reviews that presented Simon Rex‘s protagonist as a Donald Trump-like figure are grasping at straws. Sure, this is also a vain huckster, but there’s so much heart and almost child-like innocence to this fictional creation. Watching him be awful is amusing, not enraging. It’s a notable choice that makes the character study not just fascinating, but wildly entertaining as well.
An ear-worm of an NSYNC tune opens the film, introducing us to our protagonist. Returning home to Texas City, Texas is Mikey Saber (Rex), a self-proclaimed former top porn star. Beat up and clearly back from California under strained circumstances, he arrives at the home of his mother in law Lil (Brenda Deiss), where his wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) is living. Both great him with disdain and disbelief that he would show his face. Like a whiny child, he works his way into the home, as well as eventually back into Lexi’s bed. Soon, he’s selling weed, a job he held before porn came calling. Could he be trying to make amends? Or, is he up to something? He may not know himself at the start, but before long, a plan begins to form, spurred on by a chance encounter.
As he continues to worm his way back into the lives of those who knew him, Mikey also sets his sights on someone new. That someone is Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a teen working at the local donut shop. To him, she’s a major discovery and porn’s next new star. She’s sexy, looks almost too young, and is open to many an experience. To her, however, he’s a well-traveled older man who strikes his fancy. While he woos her, he also tries to keep everyone else off his back. Eventually, however, all of his scheming threatens to catch up to him, leading to quite the climax.
Simon Rex is an absolute force of nature here. He attacks the role of Mikey with a zest that’s so hypnotic, you completely understand how so many could wind up under his spell. Rex’s washed up former porn actor is a complete narcissist and about as oily as it gets, but he’s also almost child-like in his actions. He does terrible things, but you want to believe he’s not an irredeemably bad human being. Rex blew me away with a turn that won’t soon be forgotten about. Also doing excellent work is Suzanna Son, who plays her character as worlds away from a babe in the woods. She’s just as compelling as Rex, suggesting a very bright future. Son is charming, funny, sexy, and smarter than she lets on. It’s a phenomenal turn. Don’t sleep on Bree Elrod, either, as she tells you all you need to know about her past with simple looks. She’s the character your heart most goes out to, even as plenty of her actions leave something to be desired. Other supporting players, like Ethan Darbone, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, and Brittney Rodriguez, manage to leave their mark as well.
Sean Baker’s writing (as well as Chris Bergoch’s) and directing is truly on point in Red Rocket. This, more than any of Baker’s work before, could have gone wrong. Their protagonist could have been unwatchable in his awfulness. The sexuality on display could have gone over the edge. It just all could have left a bad taste in your mouth. Instead, it’s Baker and Bergoch’s funniest flick, as well as one of their most touching. The screenplay never spells anything out, but also doesn’t ever leave you behind. Baker’s direction, combined with Drew Daniels’ cinematography, is rightly obsessed with the characters on screen. These creations are the true top success of this wildly successful film.
Oscar should be bold and embrace Red Rocket with arms wide open. If the Academy just went by quality, Best Picture, Best Director (for Baker), Best Actor (for Rex), Best Supporting Actress (for Son), and Best Original Screenplay (for Baker and Bergoch) nominations would be forthcoming. It speaks to just how much voters still veer towards more traditional fare that this isn’t a slam dunk for citations. It should be though, it’s just that good.
Red Rocket is best discovered, not explained. Just let it wash over you in all of its dirty-minded greatness. NYFF saw its initial audience go head over heels for it, and they won’t be the last crowd to do so. If you’ve ever gravitated towards Baker and Bergoch before, whether it be Starlet, Tangerine, or The Florida Project, this should likewise make for a memorable experience. A24 has a special one on their hands. Don’t you dare miss it!