This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.
Red Rocket (2021)
Written by Chris Bergoch and Sean Baker
Directed by Sean Baker
Sean Baker’s filmmaking career has been centered on people working on the margins of society. Tangerine followed two transgender sex workers through a day in their life while The Florida Project, while told from young Moonie’s perspective, featured the challenges her mother, a sex worker, faced in Orlando. Red Rocket continues this trend but with a male sex worker. While Baker has always presented characters who challenge us to like them in certain moments, none of them have been as challenging to wrestle with as Mikey. Filmed during COVID, the director pulls this picture off without a hitch, delivering a searing image of America in the last few years of decline.
Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) rolls back into Texas City after leaving for Los Angeles 17 years prior. He worked in the adult film industry, and his physical bruises and lack of money indicate things went wrong. Mikey shacks up with his estranged ex Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother, Lil. Because of his long gap in service work, potential employers are less than enthusiastic about hiring him. Nevertheless, Mikey manages to persuade local drug maven Leondria into letting him sell weed for her. After making enough money to pay for the following month’s rent, Mikey celebrates at a nearby doughnut shop where he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old girl. With the porn industry still in his mind, our protagonist decides that Strawberry would be perfect for adult films, just 3 weeks out from her eighteenth birthday. Mikey tries to hide his side relationship with this underage girl but garners suspicions from Lexi, who he’s also sleeping with again.
Mikey Saber is a complete dirtbag. That’s why it’s so strange to me that in the discourse about this film in places like Twitter, there’s a kind of Puritanical fervor over its underage relationship. I never once thought the movie was endorsing this behavior. In fact, it clearly shows how Mikey harms people and himself through his narcissistic behavior. I think what people are getting worked up about is Baker’s tone in his work. If you look at his previous films, he has a penchant for presenting them from the personal perspectives of his main characters. Look no further than the conclusion of The Florida Project, which is clearly a fantasy of Moonie’s. The same can be said here, and once again, the movie’s final scene makes it clear we see the story through the eyes of the protagonist. Mikey is caught in a destructive cycle, and his relationship with Strawberry is just another part of the cycle. This is why we see him imagining this fantasy of her exiting her house to go off to LA with him just as he’s hit the lowest dregs of life again.
This is about the path of destruction laid out by people who went off the rails a long time ago. Mikey already screwed up life for Lexi and ruins his neighbor Lonnie’s life in the second act of the film. But, in Mikey’s head, he’s surviving, and part of survival in the world of working poor America is to make sure society chews up the other guy instead of you. This philosophy is centered on believing that the world will grind up people into sausage no matter what, so you should really make sure it’s someone else and not you. Hence, Mikey has no moral compunction about bringing Strawberry into adult films, knowing full well she likely won’t come out of it in better shape. This isn’t Baker admonishing people for going into sex work, but acknowledging how sex work under capitalism is a highly exploitative industry.
Throughout the film, set in 2016, you can hear cable news outlets commenting on and playing speeches related to the Trump/Clinton election. This is key to understanding what Baker is saying because this film spotlights a charismatic & funny complete scumbag. We watch Mikey do terrible things and lie & cheat his way through life, but the tone is one of sunny humor. This is perfectly captured in Simon Rex’s performance, fast-talking and always getting others caught up in his “brilliant” ideas. There’s always an excuse for when he fails that it’s not his fault and begging that he be given a break. Through the setting, a Gulf Coast Texas town run on oil extraction, we see how American society puts so many people on the fringes. What prospects does Strawberry actually have in Texas City? Keep working at the doughnut shop? Go work for the oil company? Her options end with her still living in poverty and probably saddled with a few kids and a husband. It’s not the worst way to live, but it’s nothing that would capture the imagination of anyone. She is even one of the few characters to acknowledge how the region started slave trading (Black Ivory) and now subsists on oil (Black Gold).
Baker has zero interest in making a bleak movie about the underclass; there’s plenty of those to go around. Instead, he tries to find humor in a landscape that can quickly kill the spirit. Because Mikey persists and projects a veneer of genius to people who cannot discern what real genius is, he can wrap them around his finger. The most telling part of the film is in the second act when Mikey is involved in a massive, deadly car accident and spends a day fretting over the knock of police at his door. This is the quietest we see him, but when it’s clear someone else is going down for it, he roars back to life. Few movies manage to handle such a problematic protagonist so well and convey how that type of person’s mind works. We can’t hope to fix the problems in the world without first understanding how they happen and why exploitation is so common.