Red Rocket: I’m with You, by David Bax
Sean Baker has been directing for over twenty years but he made his name with two Los Angeles movies, 2012’s Starlet and 2015’s landmark Tangerine. After those, he departed for the lesser explored parts of greater Orlando, Florida with 2017’s The Florida Project. Now, with Red Rocket, he’s taken us to Texas City, Texas, a Galveston-neighboring port community. With each of these, the New Jersey born and raised Baker has given us an immersive, honest and judgment-free experience of community, not a condescending anthropological survey (though I will freely admit that it always makes me laugh when people from this part of the world use the word “Coke” to refer to soda generically).
Red Rocket is not just specific in its geographical setting, though. It’s also purposeful with its temporal one. Our story, about Mikey (Simon Rex), a down on his luck porn star returning to his hometown to lay low and plot his next moves, takes place across the summer of 2016. Characters catch bits of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions on TV but the general political leanings of this place are made clear by the gigantic Donald Trump campaign sign we see near the beginning of the movie. In Trump’s RNC speech, we hear him describe America as a “nation of believers, dreamers and strivers” and it doesn’t take too much work to see Mikey through that lens, a guy committed to making things happen for himself even when the odds are against him and even when it means forging unconventional paths.
That’s how a lot of Trump’s supporters see their favorite president. But a lot of the rest of us see something else, not an ingenuous striver but an amoral, self-centered bullshitter. Mikey is that, too, and Red Rocket‘s success lies in Baker acknowledging that both can be true simultaneously.
Mikey’s eagerness and wiliness make it tempting to root for him; it doesn’t hurt that he’s affable, handsome and funny. But doing whatever it takes often means using others. That’s what Mikey does to his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss) when he begs them to let him stay at their house. And, most egregiously, that’s what he intends to do to teenage donut shop employee Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who would have been an infant when Mikey went off to L.A. to make his name in porn and whom he sees as his ticket back into the industry. After all, she’ll be of legal age soon enough.
Baker’s tendency to employ lesser-known actors with relatively little experience and get great performances from them pays off again. Though there are plenty of allegories to be found here, be they about Trump or any other bizarre reality of American life, the people here are people. Baker loves them unconditionally and you will too.