By Jacob Rozenberg, First Year, English Literature
After 2017’s The Florida Project brought his creative work to a wider audience, Sean Baker has returned with Red Rocket, the story of a washed-up adult film actor and the challenges he faces upon returning to his hometown of Texas City. The appearance of protagonist Mikey Saber, played by a perfectly cast Simon Rex, appears to mark a new path in the direction of Baker’s filmography - in essence, he has exchanged a study of milieu for a study of a character.
Aside from that, many of the director’s trademarks remain: use of non-professional actors, a directorial style rooted in realist tradition, and, perhaps most importantly, a sincere, thought-provoking study of lives on the margins of present-day America. Mikey Saber’s very existence feels uncertain and transitory - his presence in the film a mere pit stop between life stages.
While he balances moving back in with his estranged wife Lexi and her mother Lil with a burgeoning relationship with 17-year-old donut-store employee Strawberry (Suzanna Son), Baker brilliantly plots the way in which even as Mikey’s life may appear to prosper, it ultimately becomes trapped by the shadow of his past.
Despite potential comparisons to past anti-heroes from Cosmo Vittelli in John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie to Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked (both directors being past reference points for Baker), Mikey Saber appears a pointed testament to his times.
The time is 2016, and the ascension of Donald Trump moves infrequently in and out of the background of shots (including one all-too-prescient clip of him claiming that year’s election would be rigged no matter what, a line we may have heard recalled in a different sense not too long ago). Absence of opportunities, not to mention the hollowness of dreams of enterprise, coalesce in Baker’s protagonist.
Mikey’s own dream of America arises out of the sun-drenched oil refinery land he cycles through; his desire to move back to Los Angeles as a “suitcase pimp” with Strawberry. However, his success in this enterprise may not be as clear-cut as he imagines.
Without revealing too much, the true takeaway of Red Rocket may rest on the film’s ending. Despite a slightly rambly second act (think Licorice Pizza, thoroughly enjoyable but with a little drag), Baker’s film lives through the ingenuity of the relationship between Mikey and Strawberry. The ambiguity of Mikey’s vision for the future of the relationship and the modifications he makes to his own behaviour when around Strawberry, such as letting her drop him off in an affluent neighbourhood to preserve the illusion of his success, adds depth and intrigue to the drama Baker forges.
Comedic dialogue and set pieces (including one very memorable ‘reveal’ towards the film’s conclusion) work to strengthen the subject matter and create well-rounded, multi-dimensional characters that feel worth rooting for. This even includes Mikey, whose lies and manipulation work alongside his charm and optimism to make him a genuinely difficult character to categorise.
Perhaps, the overall tone of the movie can be abridged into the opening blast of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye”. That song’s lyrics of ‘checking out’ and ‘signing off’ may well be describing the interests of Mikey Saber throughout the movie. Checking out of his prior life, he comes back to start a new one, only to once more find he wants to check out, sign off and start again.
Whether or not he’ll get the chance to leave his past behind him remains the lasting question in our minds as the credits roll.
Featured Image: IMDB
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