Sean Baker’s newest work on a manipulative, self-centered egomaniac is done so well that the audience is won over within the first thirty minutes. “Red Rocket” follows the return of Mikey Saber—played by Simon Rex—to his hometown of Texas City after his stint in the adult film industry comes to a close. As Mikey returns, it is easy to get wrapped up in his boyish charm and charisma. He has a seemingly never-ending tank of energy, cracking one-liners and poorly-timed jokes that only a twenty-something with unbridled confidence could get away with. The problem is that Mikey is nearly 50 years old. While his ridiculous nature is fun to be around for a bit, it quickly gets old once his constant manipulation of others is revealed. The real turning point for the audience’s perception of Mikey is when his predatory relationship begins with a teenage donut shop worker named Strawberry, played by Suzanna Son. It is then that the audience is clued into the slimy layers of Mikey’s true self that are about to be uncovered. If not already apparent enough, Mikey’s reaction to the disaster that sparks his downfall is the icing on the cake of just how manipulative Mikey truly is.
Where the true thematic beauty lies in “Red Rocket” is not just the depiction of a self-indulgent, washed-up lunatic taking advantage of those around him. If simply for that, one might opt to watch the evermore fast-paced and anxiety-inducing “Uncut Gems.” Rather, where “Red Rocket” differentiates itself from its peers comes from director Sean Baker’s unique approach to filmmaking perfected here. Similar to his most notable prior work in “The Florida Project,” Baker takes the approach of utilizing non-professional actors, essentially pulling a cast from first-timers other than Simon Rex, who is a first-time lead himself. This takes his approach one step further from “The Florida Project,” as Willem Dafoe’s strong presence yielded a much more recognizable face than Simon Rex. Nevertheless, the realistic approach that Baker continues to take in “Red Rocket” is even more incredible than before, especially given the award-worthy performances from people who live the lives depicted in the film. This near documentarian style approach coupled with the rustic yet candy-colored cinematography from Drew Daniels makes “Red Rocket” one of the most enticing films to watch of the past decade.
Further than the classic approach of Sean Baker coupled with experimental new steps that work incredibly well, one of my favorite aspects of “Red Rocket” was its use of setting—specifically, the choice to set the film in Texas City right in the middle of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Right from the beginning of the film, Baker makes it evident that we are right in the middle of conservative, rural America through the constant placement of Trump speeches and signs in the background of many important scenes. While this could just be a clever way of establishing the setting of which the audience is to experience for the next two hours, I couldn’t help but link the behaviors and attitudes of Mikey Saber to Donald Trump. The way in which Mikey’s immature and often vulgar charisma is able to woo over a certain group of people, yet is seen right through by others, seems to mirror aspects of Trump’s campaign. While subtle certainly would not be the correct term for describing this connection between the two, Sean Baker is able to engrain allegory into his films in a way that is detectable yet does not insult the viewer’s intelligence with glaring and overt metaphor. This line is walked perfectly in “Red Rocket” and is made even more impressive when considering the glaringly obvious messages that other films have spoon-fed in recent years.
In a year full of star-studded casts, fantastical adaptations, jaw-dropping horror, and even a Wes Anderson feature, a film about a washed-up, manipulative adult film star takes the prize as my favorite.