Red Rocket was reviewed out of the New York Film Festival, and will debut in theaters on Dec. 3.
Before we even see an image beyond the logos of the companies behind Red Rocket, director Sean Baker cheekily introduces us to the world of his follow up to The Florida Project with NSYNC’s karaoke classic “Bye Bye Bye.” It’s a familiar warm-up technique filmmakers have often employed to immediately set a lighter tone, but as the pop song returns more than once over the next two hours, we’ll slowly come to learn why it’s crucial to our understanding of our lead, ex-porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex). For many of us, the 20-year-old “Bye Bye Bye” is a trip to another time in our lives, but for him, it’s a time he never left.
The symbolism of an NSYNC hit (down to who is singing it and what mood they’re in) isn’t the usual fodder for low-budget character studies. But it’s hardly the first commercial iconography Baker has included in his work (see: the end scene of The Florida Project), and here it’s an early indicator that Baker hasn’t lost his thrilling signature knack for intersecting pop culture with intimate human drama.
Red Rocket opens with Mikey on a bus back to his rundown, backwoods Texas hometown after presumably some kind of failure in Los Angeles. He never tells his ex-wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), or his mother-in-law, Lil (Brenda Deiss), why he’s suddenly back in town, but he is quick to mention all the adult film awards he’s been nominated for since leaving.
Rex, a former porn star himself, is magnetic in the role. The film is undeniably his showcase; a slice-of-life dramedy in which a sociopathic individual escapes a great many consequences by using his boyish charm on the right people, and not always on purpose. The character’s spirit, and thus Rex’s performance, feels like a companion to what Adam Sandler pulled off in Uncut Gems. But instead of dealing with modern New York gangsters, Mikey has to deal with his former family and their protective, close-knit community.
Drugs play a role in his troubles as well, and staying with Lexi and Lil, he sees them using heroin. “Good life choices!” he yells to them, before Lexi snaps back that the doctor cut Lil’s pain meds in half. In this setting, Baker is able to make a plethora of current American issues pieces of Mikey’s overall story. Set in 2016, the opioid crisis, health care, and, yes, Donald Trump all come into play. But Baker never falls into the trap of being preachy about these topics. As Mikey’s mother-in-law listens to one of the now former president’s speeches, there’s no indictment or endorsement, or even revelation, really, of her politics. But in 2016, this is just simply what was frequently playing on the TV in a lot of lower-class homes in red states.
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Yet, Red Rocket mostly remains focused on Mikey and his shenanigans as he disrupts the lives of those around him. Baker’s made his entire career by showing the people that the American system failed. We’re never led to be distracted by who Mikey might’ve voted for in the 2016 election, but we are meant to understand that both sides of the aisle play into the socioeconomic landscape he and everyone else in the movie have to live in. The film is more pro-human than anything representing right or left. It wants to show us how likable, complex people a great many of us don’t think about live.
These observations and character moments do run into pacing problems as Mikey starts courting the 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who works at their local donut shop. Red Rocket marches in place for a long while in its second act as their toxic relationship too slowly progresses from creepy flirting to something potentially more dangerous. It feels very clear where the two-hour-and-10-minute runtime could have been made tighter. This elongated section threatens to derail Rex’s efforts to make Mikey likable in his erratic (and erotic) life pursuits. Luckily, the film course corrects for a wild finale that makes great use of the diverse personalities in their small Texas community.
The movie’s final note can’t escape feeling a little trite, as the static cycle of “Bye Bye Bye”s of Mikey’s life ultimately reveals itself in a way other slice-of-life character studies have executed with more emotion (Nomadland a prime example). But it can’t stomp on an otherwise entertaining story of muted bombast. This is the performance of Rex’s career by a long shot, but it’s also an empathetic and honest portrait of a type of life people live in the U.S. There’s not much to celebrate about the story’s situations, and so Red Rocket serves more as a call for the system to better serve its people. That’s not something any film can accomplish on its own, but attempts this good tend to have their heart in the right place.