Director Sean Baker has made a career of chronicling life on the margins. His lo-fi, low-budget and naturalistic films, “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project,” are about outsiders but never look down on their subjects. His latest, “Red Rocket,” now playing in theatres, continues his trend of neither celebrating or condemning the choices made by his edgy characters.
In “Red Rocket” former MTV DJ Simon Rex is Mikey Saber, a once celebrated porn star whose career in front of the camera is over. Broke, he goes home to Texas City, a dustbowl town he said he’d never step foot in again, yet here he is, crashing at his estranged wife Lexi’s (Bree Elrod) house.
When his porn star past gets in the way of landing a straight job, like working at the local fast-food joints, he makes money selling dime bags. When he meets 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a clerk at the local donut shack, he thinks he’s found his Lolita, a ticket back to the porn biz.
“She’s smoking hot,” he says. “She made the first move. She has no dad, and here’s the kicker, she lets me sell weed to the hard hats at her work. Does it get any better than that?”
“Red Rocket” is a story, loosely told, of the flip side of the American Dream. Saber is a con man, a hustler, all talk, no action (at least outside the sheets). A narcissistic loser, he has ideas but not the wherewithal to see them through and, unfortunately, he drags those around him down on his desperate climb up. Rex makes him compelling, bringing humor and pathos to a complete scumbag.
“Red Rocket” doesn’t feel as tightly constructed as Baker’s other’s films. It shares the same Marlboro-stained soul, but this time around his examination of choices people make simply to survive, flails almost as much as its characters.