It’s difficult to make a compelling narrative from terrible people. We tend to want to like our protagonists and watch them succeed. Constructing a story from awful people we want nothing to do with and whom we hope to fail takes a special kind of talent that’s rare to come by. Which is the bread and butter of Sean Baker’s career.
Baker makes films exploring the sides of American society we tend to, at best, ignore. The characters that populate his stories as the forgotten, the butt of every joke, and the dirty mass of hard luck and bad decisions that we use as cautionary tales. In his hands, however, we find the basic humanity and commonality that unites the lowest with the rest of us.
Red Rocket, the latest from the director of The Florida Project, is, perhaps, the zenith of the writer/director’s character study attempts so far. Here, he has created a character that is all at once so despicable and so charming that we can’t help rooting for him or hating ourselves when we do. It is a bitterly funny, verité look at the lives of those we would dismiss as white trash.
Simon Rex stars as Mikey Saber, a down on his luck porn star who returns to his tiny hometown of Texas City in an attempt to reconcile with his estranged wife and mother-in-law (Bree Elrod and Brenda Deiss). With nothing to his name, he attempts to hustle up enough money to earn his way back into the adult film elite (or, at the very least, scam his way back into his wife’s life). He thinks he’s found just what he needs in donut store employee/high school senior, Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Hoping he’s discovered the next big star in adult entertainment, he’s just got to earn enough to get back to Los Angeles, a prospect made difficult by the fact that everyone hates him.
Rex, a former VJ turned C-lister following a 90’s porn scandal of his own, is as shockingly amazing as Mikey. Growing up in Texas, I’ve met no shortage of failed-dream hustlers struggling to try and break out of their small town. Rex (as with Baker’s script) captures this dynamic beautifully. This is a guy doing the best he can to build bridges out of the burning mass of wood he left last time he was in town, preying on the weaker and simple-minded with surface-level charms meant to mask his predatory designs.
Mikey’s quick-talking hustle is equal parts horrific and hilarious; Baker’s script paints a picture of a guy who is, ultimately, just too stupid and lazy to get what he wants from life, even though what he wants is objectively awful. In Rex’s hands, we’re able to see past the pathos of the character and into his humanity, allowing understanding and empathy with his trashy plight.
While not as good or compelling as The Florida Project, Red Rocket feels like an interesting companion to that film. Both take us deep into the humanity of the forgotten rejects of society, showing us a side of life we so often try to deny and hide ourselves from. Though at times it is a deeply uncomfortable prospect, Baker forces us out of our comfort zones in order to craft a tale that allows us to see ourselves in those we would scoff at and ignore. It’s an interesting and amazing tight rope that Baker is walking, and let’s just hope he keeps walking it for as far as it can take him.
Red Rocket is now playing in theaters everywhere.