“He’s a good man. I can tell by his nice energy,” says Mikey (a vigorous Simon Rex), translating the thoughts of his estranged wife’s affable dog as he talks his way into sleeping on her couch. This supposed “nice” energy and penchant to prattle his way through almost any situation is Mikey’s calling card. He’s a huckster who can talk a mile a minute, and has been doing so for so long he may have even bought into his own bullshit.
Red Rocket, the latest film from writer-director Sean Baker (written with Chris Bergoch), is told from the perspective of Mikey, a down and out adult film star who got into a jam, got his face smashed, and hopped a bus back to his hometown of Texas City, a deepwater port on Texas’ Gulf Coast. Smoke stacks from oil refineries fill the sky with an ever-present haze, just as Mikey’s twisted charm follows him everywhere he goes. Both are more insidious than they seem at first glance.
Mikey is a black hole, sucking everything and everyone into his orbit, and if you’re not careful he’ll be your downfall. Take his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), who its implied not only followed Mikey into adult show business in Los Angeles, but may have been pushed deeper into sex work by him before eventually retruning to the rundown home of her mother Lil (a hilariously stoic Brenda Deiss). Lexi is pissed at Mikey. She knows every angle he has. Yet, the more time she spends with him, the more his charm wears her down, despite her own best judgment. Elrod is a force, equally as brash and ferocious as she is fragile. Unfortunately, because Red Rocket is mostly interested in Mikey’s POV, often we go long stretches without Lexi or her mom, and their lack is deeply felt.
Set during the summer months leading into the 2016 election, the sounds of television are omnipresent in their home. We hear trashy court shows, soul-sucking commercials, and the political speeches of both Trump at the RNC and Hillary Clinton at the DNC. But this temporal setting, coupled with the deep south geographical setting, feels a bit undercooked. It’s unclear if Baker is making a parallel between dirtbag Mikey’s ability to coast on charm with Trump, or a commentary on rural America’s part in how the 2016 election panned out. Or if it’s all just to the salt of the Earth atmosphere in which we’re plopped. Either way, it mostly feels like gawking. The empathy for these characters is just not there; instead, there is just a deep sense of othering. As if we’re watching wild animals in a zoo.
After one particularly bad verbal altercation, Mikey attempts to smooth the situation over by treating Lexi and Lil to the ultimate luxury: as many donuts as they want. Despite being right next to the oil smoke stacks, the donut shop offers a stark contrast to their bleak home. It’s uncluttered, colorful, and filled with rows and rows of perfect looking donuts (including the pink sprinkle donut featured prominently in the film’s marketing). A big man with endless cash, Mikey struts in like a rooster, these two women flanked on his side. However, as they sit to eat their donuts he makes eyes with the cashier – a very young, spry, redheaded teenager (Suzanna Son). She makes eyes right back. Son is a natural, a star in the making for sure, with endless buoyant energy.
Because Red Rocket is all from Mikey’s POV, this sequence and the relationship that follows is told in a straightforward manner, their age difference barely mentioned. “Call me Strawberry,” she says to him when he comes back later, on the make. It made me feel skeevy to watch. Perhaps that was the point, and Baker definitely taps into the age-old debate of depiction versus endorsement. His actions are predatory, and anyone with sense knows that, but the tone of the film leans into “isn’t this zany” a bit too much. Even the final chase sequence, set to N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye”, seems less like a comeuppance and more like yet another crazy situation this loveable scamp needs to get out of.
The final shot of the film feels straight out an ‘80s music video or soft corn porno, setting Strawberry up as the stereotypical dream girl that many a teenage boy cleans his pipes to. It’s Mikey’s vision of a haven he’s desperately striving towards, but again it just feels icky. Underage girls are fetishized enough without using them as a symbol in a half-baked morality play.
In The Diary of a Teenager Girl, Marielle Heller treads similarly terrority. Minnie, a horny teenage girl, explores her sexuality while in an age-inappropriate relationship with a predatory older man. That film pushed boundaries in its explicit depiction of a teenage girl taking agency of her sex life. By rooting the story in Minnie’s journey, Heller probes a gray moral area without once fetishizing Minnie. While Son imbues Strawberry with the same naive, yet confident voracious sexual appetite, the film’s gaze is so firmly fixed on Mikey’s POV it perpetuates rather than subverts this fetishization of young women’s sexuality.
There is a fine line between normalizing the lives of sex workers and those who are otherwise marginalized by society, and cultural voyeurism. In both Tangerine and The Florida Project, Baker walked the tightrope expertly, with warmth and empathy for his characters and their worlds. However, by sticking mainly to showing the world as a real self-absorbed turd like Mikey sees it, Red Rocket falls directly into a gawking gaze. Where the films of John Waters mire themselves in filth, you always know that Waters empathizes with his characters. Here the comedy feels as though it’s laughing at rather than with the characters who find themselves ensnared by Mikey’s false charms.
“Red Rocket” is in theaters Friday.