Broke and washed up in L.A.’s X-rated industry, Mikey (former MTV VJ Simon Rex) returns to his home town, the Gulf Coast port of Texas City, TX, and Lexi (New York theater actor Bree Elrod), the wife he began in porn with and later abandoned. At first neither she nor her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) are at all pleased to see him, but once he begins bringing weed profits in and satisfying Lexi’s sexual needs, they fall for his con in “Red Rocket.”
Laura's Review: B+
Writing with his constant collaborator Chris Bergoch, director Sean Baker ("Tangerine," "The Florida Project"), the American chronicler of the fringes of the sex industry and donut shops, gives us his first male protagonist with his cinematic portrait of a charming yet unscrupulous hustler. In a midlife star-making turn, Simon Rex pulls off an incredible balancing act, keeping us rooting for him despite his despicable behavior, his Mikey the type of guy who uses everyone but is genuinely distressed at the harm he causes, albeit mostly due to backlash. Baker has assembled his usual mix of pros and non-professionals, Deiss found locally when she asked the filmmaker to jump his truck, but the discovery most likely to persist in the business is Suzanna Son, the twenty-six year-old who plays Strawberry, the seventeen year-old Donut Hole clerk Mikey views as his golden ticket.
Narratively, Baker’s latest isn’t as satisfying as his prior two films, his protagonist ending up pretty much where he started, if not further down the ladder. “Red Rocket” (the title is slang for a dog’s erection, a metaphor for Mikey) could be called ‘the episodic misadventures of a washed up porn star,’ but boy, those misadventures can be awfully entertaining when they’re not cringe-inducing (note that the lead character is frequently seen having sex with an underaged girl).
The guy who weasels his way back into Lexi and Lil’s good graces does the same with local weed queen Leondria (Judy Hill), immediately doing exactly what she tells him not to – selling to the local refinery workers outside the Donut Hole. It is there that he meets the sunny Strawberry whose girl-next-door beauty and up-for-anything bravado sets his mental gears cranking. He’s smitten, but more importantly, thinks she’s a natural for the porn industry and sells her on the idea while his wife thinks that not only does she have her husband back, but that he’s become a stable provider. The one person who knows the whole of Mikey’s multi-faced life is Lil and Lexi’s not-too-bright next-door neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone, another local natural) who doesn’t realize he’s being used as a driver, the women not owning a car. The three angles Mikey’s working for income, shelter and transportation all come crashing down quite literally and spectacularly on the very eve of his secret planned departure, which doesn’t go at all the way he’d envisioned.
Baker plunges us into a whole way of life with his laid back ensemble isolated in a wide, flat terrain defined by its skyline of industrial refineries and the highway stretching away from it. If Mikey shakes it up for a while, you can almost feel its denizens exhaling as he’s ousted, his princess unaware she's been abandoned in her little white fairly tale of a house.
A24 opens "Red Rocket" in select theaters on 12/10/21, wider on Christmas Day.