Over a handful of celebrated indie movies in the past decade, director Sean Baker has established himself as one of the most reliable chroniclers of small-time American hustlers. A New Jersey native, he’s known for the films “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project,” the former a realistic story about transgender sex workers creatively shot on iPhone 5s, and the latter involving “the hidden homeless” living in hotels, which earned Willem Dafoe an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
It’s easy to see why so many critics like Baker’s movies: He treats marginalized characters, in particular sex workers and the homeless, without any condescension; his gritty films feel like direct descendants of the ‘70s realism of actor-friendly directors such as John Cassavetes. And his new movie, “Red Rocket,” feels very much a part of his street-level obsession with a decaying America marked by con artists, spasms of stupid violence, and little to no upward mobility for its citizens.
The movie is anchored by a wiry, propulsive performance by former MTV veejay Simon Rex as Mikey Saber, a fast-talking, ex-porn star who oozes a self-confidence that reads more honestly in his eyes as desperation. A sweaty bundle of nervous energy and bulging neck veins, Mikey returns to his small hometown of Texas City on the Gulf Coast, arriving flat broke and bruised after a beating by two homeless men (though you never really know if anything Mikey says has a basis in reality).
Pedaling around town on a crappy bike from one small-time scam to another, Mikey tells prospective employers, or anyone he’s trying to impress, to “Google me.” He is proud of his porn past, even if finding gainful employment seems tougher than if he were an ex-convict. Initially, the story is propelled by his charming manipulations, as Mikey manages to sweet talk his way back into the home of his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her chain-smoking, seen-it-all mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss). Using minimal dialogue and relying on close-up facial expressions and the actors’ physicality, Baker and writer Chris Bergoch manage to convey an ocean of bad memories from this marooned marriage, without really explaining what went wrong. But all we have to do is watch Mikey to understand. Living each day with his own obsessive need for escalating reward – a textbook definition of addiction – Mikey isn’t a drug addict, but he seems to have few other interests besides sex and money, or getting online-famous again.
Maybe it’s the nonprofessional actors, but the characters feel easily recognizable. Several times, “Red Rocket” reminded me of a more realistic “Boogie Nights,” divorced from any utopian ‘70s sense of community. Subtle and broad comedic moments are steady throughout; and I was impressed by the light touch of cinematographer Drew Daniels (“Krisha”), using grainy Super 16 mm and anamorphic lenses. The wide depth and sharp focusing lends character to each small-town setting from sun-dappled, dead-end strip malls and daytime adult clubs, to spewing black smokestacks or magic hour light bathing a Ferris wheel.
Mikey is a loser, by most definitions, and Rex plays him like a hamster on the wheel of misfortune, trying to outrun his own nature. Eventually, he steps off and into the arms of a young Donut Hole employee named Strawberry (a memorable Suzanna Son) who he begins to groom as his potential meal ticket back to a porn career in Los Angeles – under the guise of a whirlwind romance, of course.
Baker pulls the film out of a slightly dragging third act with a hectic, funny climax that restores a sense of moral order to the universe of the movie – which began to feel out of whack from the first glimpse of a large Trump campaign sign looming half out of frame. The movie is set in 2016 just before he was elected, and we’re clearly meant to make a connection between the shamelessness of this character and his nascent presidency; or a normalized extremism creeping into view.
There’s no shortage of anti-heroes in film, television or real life. As a man-child who can’t help but follow his own red rocket, Mikey could’ve easily been a Southern politician instead of an itinerant suitcase pimp. Baker hammers home the tragic flaw of the self-deluded: At his core, Mikey lacks empathy for others, namely his wife, and blames everyone else for his problems. The inherent conflict in our habit of rooting for the bad guy seems at the core of the movie. The audience is torn between despising Mikey for his many weaknesses and respecting him for his underdog resiliency and willingness to dream – even when he’s usually falling out of a bedroom window, half-naked, and forever running away from his latest mistake.