After striking gold with films like Tangerine and The Florida Project, director Sean Baker’s latest film Red Rocket is a meandering misfire despite a charismatic lead and a few memorable moments.
An instantly recognizable director with his eclectic yet down-to-earth filmmaking style, Sean Baker is one of Hollywood’s most offbeat but utterly undeniable talents, having previously turned out stunners like Tangerine (which was shot entirely on an iPhone) and The Florida Project. His latest film, Red Rocket, seemed to be on the path to following in the footsteps of its successful predecessors, but the film’s sluggish pacing and aimless narrative make it a draining watch, even with a charismatic lead-in and a handful of particularly memorable moments – most of which involve *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye”.
Starring Simon Rex, Red Rocket follows washed-up ex-pornstar Mikey Saber (Rex) as he returns to his small hometown in Texas to crash with his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and her mother (Brenda Deiss). While there, he picks up a pocket change job dealing drugs for his neighbor and strikes up a romance with 17-year-old donut shop employee Strawberry (Suzanna Son), whom he one day hopes to persuade to join the adult film industry so he can stage a comeback.
Sean Baker is certainly no stranger to more freeform, aimless plot structures they’ve become somewhat of a staple in his work, opting to create a lived-in, slice-of-life world for his character to inhabit as opposed to telling a distinctly linear and narratively focused story. However, when it comes to Red Rocket, the protagonist at the center of it all just isn’t compelling enough to carry the weight of the entire film on his back, or even enough to supplement the lack of concrete plot.
Rex’s Mikey Saber is a smooth-talking hustler whose antics are certainly resourceful and entertaining, but there comes a point when watching him fumble around with a 17-year-old and clash with his wife grows weary, and the lack of interesting interpersonal relationships begins to shine through – emphasizing that, though Baker certainly knows how to populate his worlds with all sorts of outlandish characters (in that regard, he’s practically a master of the art) he still struggles to form meaningful or interesting bonds between said characters, and in combination with the lack of narrative direction, it makes for a film lacking in both emotional stakes and compelling story.
With Red Rocket, it’s difficult to discern whether or not we should be in Mikey’s corner – and though there’s certainly room for morally grey characters as film protagonists, the film’s indecision towards how we should feel about him only furthers the overall issue with lack of compelling direction. That’s not to say Red Rocket is entirely devoid of compelling characters – Mikey’s love interest Strawberry teeters dangerously on the border of being a full-on manic pixie dream girl. The film’s borderline leering gaze towards her feels self-aware and intentional, especially in the dream sequence-Esque final moments of the film.
As Strawberry, Suzanna Son effortlessly walks the line between naive, innocent, and flirtatious – at times inexperienced and out of her depth when with the much older and seasoned Mikey. But she also possesses a clear sense of self and sharp wit that makes her a much more interesting character than meets the eye. To his credit, Simon Rex is a formidable enough lead as well, capturing the sleazy, ego-driven air one might expect of an ex-adult film star, but still maintaining enough charm to make one believe he’d be able to worm his way back into the lives of so many people who can’t stand him.
In between his fooling around with Strawberry and drug-dealing escapades, Red Rocket features several memorable sequences thanks to zippy camerawork from cinematographer Drew Daniels, and pitch-perfect needle drops of *NYSNC’s aforementioned “Bye Bye Bye”, which seems to haunt Mikey throughout the entire film. Red Rocket‘s standout scene, which features a battered and bruised, Mikey sprinting through the streets stark naked as the song blares proudly in the background, feels like it could and should have been the most dynamic place for the film to end. But instead of going out on a high note, Baker plods the film on for another 10 minutes, robbing the last act of nearly all its momentum.
Though peppered with moments of brilliance and featuring Baker’s signature eye for comedic camerawork and eerie talent for crafting memorable supporting characters, Red Rocket‘s aimless narrative and lack of compelling interpersonal relationships make it feel like a plodding, meandering misfire and an unworthy successor to the rest of Baker’s impressive filmography.