A porn star-turned-weed dealer aims for blast-off in ‘Red Rocket’ 

click to enlarge Simon Rex and Suzanna Son in Red Rocket. - A24
  • A24
  • Simon Rex and Suzanna Son in Red Rocket.

"You've got that Hollywood vibe," croons Strawberry (a welcome newcomer in Suzanna Son) to Mikey (Simon Rex), Red Rocket's motor-mouthed, consummate fraud lead as they walk along an empty road. The year is 2016 and the place is dead-end Texas City, Texas, an oil town near Galveston. Strawberry's the 17-year old counter girl at the local doughnut shop, and her alternate career paths are bound to run through either the gas stations or refineries nearby. But Strawberry's right, after a fashion — for Rex's casting as Mikey (who's wooing her while in his 40s) is just one of Red Rocket's many masterstrokes. Sean Baker (previously of Tangerine, The Florida Project, and several more) directs here, writing alongside frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch to spin a tale of misadventure at America's sun-cooked, growing margins. Together, they propel his form to new heights with a rowdy, endlessly funny work that accumulates depth with sublime elegance, through its patterns and at its edges.

For Mikey, the hustle is never-ending (though it pauses now and then) — anybody, he says, can just google "MikeySaberXXX" if they need proof. Mikey's a former porn star of some renown (an AVN Awards-winner for Best Oral several years running, he brags), and though his claims about himself can't be trusted, his antic, insistent charm earns him the benefit of the doubt from those he meets. As played by Rex, a real-life porn star, he's an occasional tabloid fixture, positively tireless, a perennial scoundrel never to be daunted — traits driven home by the manic, chemically-addled twinkle in his eyes. With a dutifully plastic air, a presence heavy on insistent performance as it proves light on decent taste, and a swaggering, hard-bodied bravado he brings to every moment, Mikey embodies a specific kind of male, turn-of-the-millenium striver to perfection: an ideal from another, distant-feeling time. No pun is too obvious or crass here for him, or for Rex ("you're too old for me," he quips to Strawberry) — but the joke is about much more than the line — it's about Rex's remarkable devotion to wringing the most from every execrable bit.

His spirits are dinged and one eye's black when he shows up at Lexi's (a brilliant Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil's door, lacking the means for a shower, a hotel room, or even a change of clothes. Lexi is still, it seems by negligent accident, his long-estranged wife, and Lil (Brenda Deiss) thinks no better of Mikey than she does. While they look down their noses at Mikey, they don't seem too much better off, the thin barriers between success and failure as plain throughout Red Rocket as its framework of America as a class-based caste system. In the shadow of refinery smokestacks, the film's working poor are confined lifelong to a kind of fishbowl they can barely move up or down in — and never without trying.

And Mikey, say what one might say about him, is always trying — and within a certain narrow band of economic opportunity and possibility, he's even able to succeed. After talking his way into Lil and Lexi's home, he finds a small niche dealing weed for local friends of theirs, hitching rides to strip clubs or shopping malls, and cycling around on borrowed wheels on the many days he can't. For Mikey, thanks to Baker and cinematographer Drew Daniels, these scenes of cycling recur so often that they gather a richness and weight: a visual-narrative motif underlining his sense of gumption and personal drive. Mikey, who dispenses his joints in American flag rolling papers ("I'm a patriot," he tells a clerk) has what Americans are told that they're supposed to: a relentless entrepreneurial spirit and a self-centered competitiveness that eclipses any debt to one's community. But he also has what we, at least as bachelors, are often quietly encouraged to do and then to value after: a twisted cocktail of libertine venality and near-pious self-regard. With this scrappy set of tools at his disposal, he becomes a kind of breadwinner for his wife and mother-in-law, buying them some modest semblance of a better life while also purchasing their quiet acquiescence to his presence in their lives — a situation that harks in its own fraught way to a long, patriarchal tradition.

But those same traits leave Mikey, with his abundance of brittle ego, prone to particular temptations: and so enter Strawberry, who may be less a catalyst than an excuse, becoming anyway the object of Mikey's daydreams and fixations. Slipping away during his workday dealings to hover at the doughnut counter, Mikey flirts less with her than at her relentlessly, whispering into her ear about the life she could have: in modeling, in Hollywood, in porn. But it's not so much about Strawberry, or at least not just — these are dreams of a comeback Mikey's nursing for himself, imagining, somehow, a deficit of talent on the adult-media circuit so great as to make him a welcome presence in middle age. But for these naive longings Mikey doesn't have what Strawberry does in age and inexperience, which at least provide her with some form of cover or excuse. In nursing these fantasies he threatens not only her well-being — probably culminating in some fairly dim future — but the fragile degree of stability he's been lucky enough to build.

While it's not much, what Red Rocket grasps quite finely is that what Mikey's built is precious: that with each joint and cig lit in the shadow of Texas City's omnipresent smokestacks, he's waving small but celebratory glowing pyres, signs of a small and not-yet-legal business of his own. Each of these is a small, burnt flag, a little signifier of exuberant rebellion and of pride. But in refusing to accept this, a life operating at so humble — and, really, so fragile and potentially quite desperate a scale — Mikey's in some way still doing what Americans are supposed to do in thirsting for something more. If there's anything on screen to render his courtship with Strawberry almost sensible and emotionally coherent, it's in their brief flashes of contentment found trodding along roadsides and boardwalks, prompting him to ask the wind more than her at one point: "Does it get any better than this?" For Mikey Saber, it's unlikely to get better than these nights spent smoking in Texas City's fouled night air, short moments in which he's uncommonly but fully present — so he may as well enjoy them while he can.


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