The latest award-winning indie rebel of a film to grace our screens this winter is Sean Baker’s Red Rocket. In this quirky comedy, Baker brings to our wide-eyed, at times incredulous, attention a washed-up porn actor struggling to recover from his hazy failures and misfortunes in Los Angeles as he returns to his hometown of Texas City, Texas. Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is down on his luck, penniless and sporting a colourful conglomeration of bruises when he attempts to reunite with his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod) who resentfully allows him refuge inside her and her mother’s humble yellow bungalow. After failing to get a job due to his inexperience with clothed professions, Mikey turns to dealing drugs as he meanwhile falls in love with a teenage donut shop worker, nicknamed Strawberry (Suzanna Son).
The film feels oddly relatable. Do I see myself in Mr Saber? I returned home this winter break to lick my wounds and recover from the academic burnout of the past semester. I may not work in porn but I certainly had to perform for the camera—if only academically and on Microsoft Teams. There is a strangeness to be felt returning home to your childhood bedroom after four months of total freedom and independence. I don’t have an estranged wife but I did have to make an effort to reestablish my cat’s trust. And like Mikey, with no car at my disposal I had to roam my hometown by bicycle.
There are times when I am unsure of the film's attitude toward Mikey. The camera often looks sympathetically upon him, framing him as a victim of his own American Dream rather than a narcissistic parasite. Mikey is portrayed as heartbreakingly human—passionate and flawed. However I cannot help but see his eyes as unmistakably reptilian and predatory. His obsession with Strawberry is not only a product of infatuation and lust but a desire to regain professional success by luring her into the sleazy waters of the LA porn industry. Is the film therefore problematic? Of course it is. The real issue lies in whether the film knows it is problematic or not. It is easy to forget that Strawberry is seventeen years old and Mikey over ten years her senior when watching sexual chemistry spark and ignite between them.
There is more to Red Rocket than being just another dire slice of Americana. Simon Rex shines in his role as the both charismatic and predatory Mikey Saber. The limited soundtrack of predominantly NSYNC’s ‘Bye Bye Bye’ is both hilarious and genius. Of course reminding us of the film’s low budget of $1 million, the song also proves that less is more. Suzanna Son’s cover is a stand-out moment in the film—both tender and bold. Overall the acting was impressive. Watching the film, I didn’t see actors, I saw people. This may not be surprising when you learn that most of the acting came from nonprofessionals. Red Rocket is certainly worthy of your viewing—if not to experience a raw portrayal of poverty and hardship on the margins of American society, then to see a fully nude man run through Texas City’s moonlit streets for 34 seconds—trust me, it feels longer than you think.