A washed-up adult film star by the name of Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) returns to his hometown along the Texas Gulf Coast to live with his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss). While trying to scheme his way back into the industry, he uses the people in his life as tools to recapture the fame and success he’s lost. This is Red Rocket, the newest film from auteur director, Sean Baker.
Baker never stands on moral high ground. While his characters, such as Mikey Saber in Red Rocket, take detestable actions to get what they want, they’re justified by the character’s own psychology as well as the dismal circumstances they find themselves in. So while the audience might not see his leads as morally virtuous, you can see through their perspectives as to why they take the actions they do.
With Sean Baker, you get no sensationalism, no unnecessary violence, no CGI, and no star-studded casts. What you get is a painting of American life in the 21st century, showcasing underlooked settings and characters in the underbelly of the states.
A massive “Trump 2020” sign, tireless trucks sitting on the lawn with mattresses in back, cracked and collapsing homes filled with clutter and overfilled ashtrays, and pump jacks roaring in the distance. This is Texas City, a small town along the Texas Gulf Coast. To one unfamiliar with a setting as such, it might come off as backward or grotesque, and if you were driving around in this city, one might have the tendency to double-lock their car in fear of the folk walking outside. Baker doesn’t buy into this fear-mongering and surface-level judgment. The central characters in Red Rocket are adult actors, drug dealers, and the unemployed.
Baker gives value to all three and shows them as endearing people who do, in fact, care for one another in their community and do their best to ensure one another gets by. Leondria, played by Judy Hill, is the town drug dealer. When Mikey returns to town and can’t find work, he asks Leondria to give him weed to deal just like he did for her in high school. While it seems initially she is willing to help a down on his luck Mikey, she’s only giving him a chance because she knows the money will pay the rent of her friend and Mikey’s mother-in-law, Lil. When Mikey is about to skip town with the household’s money at the end of the film, Leondria boots him from town and gives the money to Lil and Lexi.
The members of this Texas City community look out for one another and don’t take kindly to those who come from the outside and try to use their people for their own gain. While Mikey used to be one of them, he had since lost his accent and arrived in Texas City to simply use its people for his own benefit. For a community long let down by politicians and the wealthy driving a large gap between classes, another opportunist isn’t a welcome addition.
Sean Baker’s actors deliver genuine performances, but it’s not due to their stardom, but their authenticity in the setting he provides. Like with The Florida Project, Baker used non-actors in Red Rocket. Brittney Rodriguez, who plays June, was cast by Baker while walking her dog, having been recently laid off by a Texas City plant. In fact, Brittney was a frequent customer at the donut hole portrayed in the film.
This was Brenda Deiss’ first performance as well in the role of Lil. Ethan Darbone was cast as Lonnie after meeting Baker in a restaurant he waited at. While Simon Rex was a trained actor, rapper, and MTV personality, he was in a way very similar to Mikey’s character, being on the outs from his previous stardom. Rex was even an adult actor prior to his career taking off. Baker’s unique casting methods give way to performances that feel more like they’re out of a documentary than a fictional film.
No Need For Change
One of the shining aspects of a Sean Baker film is his open-ended finales. At the end of Red Rocket, Mikey has lost all the money he had to run away with Strawberry to LA. A dejected Mikey walks along the highway to Strawberry’s house, where he sees her open the door in a red bikini, dancing about for his pleasure. Mikey doesn’t change, or does he? Did Strawberry give him exactly what he wanted, or is this a fantasy of dehydration?
Throughout the film, as Mikey gets back on his feet, he damages more and more people from getting Lonnie arrested to betraying the trust of his wife and mother-in-law. Mikey gets what he deserves in the end by being kicked out of the town, but does that change him? Regardless of if Strawberry opens that door, his foot voyage and possible hallucination show that he still holds hope for his old ways, no matter how fleeting they might be.
This is a similar ending to The Florida Project, where Halley doesn’t seem to learn about how her actions on back pages have led to her daughter being taken into custody. In both cases, Mikey and Halley see the negative as the world doing this to them rather than their own actions, leading them to repeat the same mistakes. There is a realism in these endings, while at the same time, it’s left open-ended whether or not these characters will learn from their harmful actions.
The Struggle to Achieve the American Dream
Red Rocket is set against the backdrop of the 2016 American Presidential elections, featuring numerous speeches from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump talking about bringing their visions for American prosperity to the Oval Office. The stark contrast between their language and the living situation of Lexi and Lil show that this is a vision serving a select group of people, such as the oilmen draining the gulf coast town. Leondria might be a successful drug dealer for now. However, if she continues to push for more, as these Presidential candidates would suggest, it would lead to these elite oilmen placing her behind bars and eliminating her from the picture. Similarly, Lexi and Lil might have money for now, but with their looming heroin addictions, this may be lost soon, leading to Lexi having to go back on Craigslist to make ends meet, possibly leading to her death or arrest.
In short, this pursuit of the idealized American dream is something for a select few, while those in the fringes sit off to the side, climbing to find there is no mountain top but a steep drop into the abyss. When it comes to award season, the film community needs to mention Sean Baker a bit more as nobody captures the essence of America better than Baker. His films feel as though one is given a chance to see through the looking glass and witness a slice of life more true than anything else. For a man who makes fictional feature films, there isn’t much fiction about the realities and characters he crafts.
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