Red Rocket review: Simon Rex's prodigal porn star returns in Sean Baker's scrappy indie charmer
Never trust a man over 35 who calls himself Mikey. That's the first if not the least of the many life lessons in Red Rocket — Sean Baker's sunny, profane ramble centered on a midlife porn star (the erstwhile MTV DJ and actual former porn star Simon Rex) returning to his Texas roots. It is not strictly speaking a triumphant homecoming for Mikey Saber, who washes up in Texas City broke, bedraggled, and vaguely disgraced; if he's brought any baggage with him, it isn't the kind that fits in a suitcase.
But he does have an estranged wife, the wary, underemployed Lexi (Bree Elrod), who still lives with her mother (Brenda Deiss) in the house they once shared, and his own shamelessness: If he has to beg to stay, he will, and if there's a way to scrape by under the table in Texas City — selling dime bags, scamming free rides, scouting the next great adult-film ingenue — he'll probably find it. (Reader, he does.) You can take the hustler out of Los Angeles, but you cannot take the hustle out of the man, and when Mikey meets a luminous 17-year-old Lolita who goes by Strawberry (Suzanna Son) at the local donut shop, there's a light in his eyes that isn't just the afterglow of all that weed.
Baker, the New Jersey-born auteur behind The Florida Project and Tangerine, has stealthily become indie cinema's go-to champion of the down-and-dusty verité, a dedicated chronicler of the shabby, uncelebrated fringes. That he does it with so much affection and so little judgment is what tends to set his films apart, even if that good faith doesn't exactly translate into storytelling rigor. Rocket is leisurely episodic and at over two hours, almost certainly longer than it needs to be, but the director's singular gift for street casting — beyond Rex, hardly anyone here has acted professionally before — and deeply embedded sense of mood works its own kind of slow-rolling alchemy.
It's all headed somewhere(ish), though the storyline doesn't so much unfold on screen as enfold the viewer into its discursive world of dilapidated car parks and sad-eyed pitbulls, Marlboro Reds and backlit oil rigs. Son's blithe, guileless Strawberry comes on like a ray of freckled sunshine, all happy appetites and cowgirl boots; she's an optimist, but not a fool. And Rex's Mikey, as exhausting as his manic plans and misdemeanors would surely be in real life, is the kind of kook you somehow can't quit rooting for — a scheming true believer with a gift from God in his boxer briefs and a head still full, somehow, of American dreams. Grade: B+
Red Rocket, which premiered at Cannes and the Telluride Film Festival, comes to theaters Dec. 3.