Sean Baker’s Red Rocket
Perhaps the best way to appreciate Baker’s new film is to view it as a not-totally-straight film.
Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Starring Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, and Suzanna Son
“ Definitively breaking with older humanist approaches and the films and tapes that accompanied identity politics, [new queer films] are irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive. Above all, they’re full of pleasure. ” — B. Ruby Rich, “A Queer Sensation,” The Village Voice, March 24, 1992
After seeing the new Sean Baker film, Red Rocket (2021)—about a washed-up porn star, Mikey Saber (played by washed-up ’90s MTV VJ Simon Rex), who returns to his Texas hometown in the summer of 2016—my partner Roberto said, “One thing I didn’t understand: Why did everyone keep telling him to put his clothes on?”
Red Rocket is about a dick, and also about his dick. Mikey has made a career on his substantial appendage; his penis is central to his sense of worth and identity. He likes to sleep in the nude, and many of the women in the film—his ornery mother-in-law, Lil (Brenda Deiss); the matriarchal local weed dealer, Leondria (Judy Hill); and her butch enforcer daughter, June (Brittany Rodriguez)—are outraged and disgusted by this. But not everybody is. Lexi (Bree Elrod)—Mikey’s estranged wife, high school sweetheart, and former co-star, who tanked out of the porn industry and slunk back to Texas City years ago—gets over her initial revulsion at his reappearance once he starts paying rent on the cramped bungalow she and Lil share. She even starts to enjoy having sex with him again. And Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the 17-year-old doughnut shop employee whom Mikey becomes infatuated with and begins courting—seducing, educating, grooming—is so dickmatized that she instantly drops the high school weenie she’d been sort-of dating (“I like men, not boys,” she tells Mikey after riding him for the first time). In some ways, Red Rocket plays like a John Waters parody of the old William Inge chestnut Picnic, in which a bulging phallus upends the ethos and equilibrium of an insular small town.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate Baker’s new release—which has not been critically embraced to quite the extent of his previous two features—is to view it as a not-totally-straight film. The movie can be looked at profitably through a queer lens—not just because an aging-millennial gay male audience has fond memories of the undressed Simon Rex, but also because Baker engages with the aesthetic modes of pre-respectability queer cinema.
In addition to Waters and Inge, Red Rocket recalls early Jonathan Demme (Citizens Band , Melvin and Howard ), a country-fried Mike Leigh, and a much-more-fun version of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, who make whirling, kinetic odysseys about desperate losers trying to hustle their way through capitalism. That’s what Red Rocket’s Mikey does. As played by the motor-mouthed Rex—who, depending on the lighting and camera angle, can look either boyish and incandescent or like a leathery sleaze parked at the corner of a strip club bar—Mikey wheedles, inveigles, pleads, sweet-talks, manipulates, and boasts. He gets off the bus in Texas City with a black eye and 22 dollars. He has to begin again from nothing. His once-storied porn career has collapsed under murky circumstances involving drugs, gangsters, and feckless co-stars. He talks his way into a bed in Lexi and Lil’s house. He rides a girl’s bike around town, scrounges for clothes at a garage sale, and convinces Leondria to let him sell for her (this is after his past as a sex worker renders him ineligible for any more legit employment). He charms a hapless neighbor, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), whom Lexi once babysat, into chauffeuring him around town in his car. For a while, Mikey is just trying to keep his head above water and regroup. Then, when he meets Strawberry, he gets a plan: Bring her to L.A. and turn her into a major porn star (Sasha Grey, Jenna Jameson level) with him as her co-star and impresario. Strawberry will be his ticket back to greatness: A Star is Born told from the POV of a sweaty, chain-smoking, delusional Norman Maine.
The film is primarily an exuberant comedy about scheming and striving and surviving within a working-class community. Red Rocket is often very fun, and I think it is this commitment to in-the-moment pleasure that has made some people wary of the film, even finding it distasteful. It’s fun to fuck a guy with a big dick. It’s fun to splurge on a million doughnuts, which Mikey treats Lexi and Lil to in a lovely scene. Lord knows, if you’re a bored teenager in a nowhere town, it’s more than fun, it’s transcendent for someone like Mikey, with his braggadocio and big-city swagger, to turn the high beams of his attention on you and tell you that you’re better and bigger than your environs, that you’re special. Mikey is a monster, a user, a jerk, but he brings a lot of joy into people’s lives. This must be the reason why Lonnie, at a crucial point in the plot, refuses to betray Mikey when he has every reason to. Mikey never pays Lonnie for any of the driving he does, but he does compensate him with the warmth of his personal attention.
Glancing at the (generally positive) reviews for Red Rocket, you can spot the trend of older, straight male critics rhetorically distancing themselves from the character of Mikey—depreciating his value as a protagonist, strenuously condemning him—lest they be thought of as one of the bad men. Perhaps, as straight men, they don’t fully understand the appeal of Mikey’s presence and attention. But I can recall being a teenager and having older men approach me with a line, an agenda, a way of seeing me that was different from how everyone else in the world saw me—and though I look back in alarm at some of the choices I made, I can also remember the bewildering excitement of those experiences. Red Rocket, in some scenes, immerses you in that sense of reckless daring that can characterize adolescent sexuality. Strawberry makes the first aggressively sexual move. She and Mikey have a lot of palpable, onscreen fun together. At the same time, Baker and Chris Bergoch’s script, and Suzanna Son’s performance, clearly establish Strawberry as a mercurial, vulnerable, semi-knowable character, not a fantasy-nymphet for an aging creep. She has a sexual history, which includes sending a video of herself to an older man on the Internet. She disdains the prospect of an open relationship. She sees through some of Mikey’s lies. And she dismisses his first suggestion of a porn career with the bracingly level-headed, “I'm already going to have a very awkward senior year. I'm not about to have a very awkward rest of my life.” The fact that this initial resistance becomes gradually worn down over the course of the film suggests that Strawberry is not as in control of things as she imagines.
The viewer’s discomfort stems from the problem of pleasure, from the problem that a relationship with Mikey—grilling steaks outdoors and screwing by the Gulf—seems like a great way to spend the summer. The real problem might be that Mikey is both a sexual predator and a sexual object in the film, and straight traditional cinema has never known what to do with men as sexual objects. Classic mainstream male antiheroes—Tony Soprano, Hannibal Lecter, Walter White—are not configured as objects of desire in the way that, say, Catherine Tramell or Selina Kyle are. Baker’s straight-male camera unabashedly objectifies Mikey at times, like when Baker zooms in on his penis during a key moment near the end of the film. The movie invites us to feel not just Mikey’s lust for Strawberry (a more typical cinematic experience) but also Strawberry’s lust for Mikey. Rather than rendering her a credulous victim, the film makes space for her desires. There’s a shot in which Strawberry, after having sex with Mikey for the first time, leans her head exultantly out the window of her truck and exhales smoke languorously into the humid night air. This is small-town teenage rebellion in a single image. The slightly self-conscious lyricism suggests that Strawberry feels like she’s starring in the movie-version of her own life—that she’s experiencing an illusory sense of control over how this relationship will play out.
The clearest and most-obvious in-film “critique” of Mikey’s pursuit of Strawberry lies in the character of Lexi, who is potentially Strawberry 25 years in the future, once the sex industry has chewed her up and spit her out. Lexi, who lives with her mother and smokes black tar heroin. Lexi, who turns dangerous tricks on craigslist in order to survive. Lexi, who lost custody of the child she had by another man due to her drug addiction. She and Strawberry are like Charlotte and Dolores Haze, after-and-before examples of women under the patriarchy. The film is built around a central irony in the straight-porn industry, which is that women can become the biggest stars—for a brief window—while a journeyman phallus like Mikey can potentially keep reinventing himself into middle age. The true depth of Mikey’s callousness and opportunism gets revealed not when he loses sexual interest in Lexi, but when he dismisses her request to help her regain custody of her child.
Baker’s last two movies were centered around far more easy-to-sympathize-with protagonists: transgender sex workers of color in Tangerine (2015) and children being raised by dysfunctional parents in The Florida Project (2017). We don’t necessarily want to extend that same empathy to a middle-aged straight white guy sexual predator like Mikey in 2021. But it’s important to remember that the protagonist of Tangerine, Sin-Dee (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), is, in most respects, a flaming-hot disaster: violent, messy, loud, drug-abusing. That is part of her humanity, that she is in no way a perfect passive model-victim. It’s Baker’s greatest strength as a filmmaker that the working people he portrays are so hilariously, audaciously alive. There’s a broad streak of tabloid camp in his work (as seen in Red Rocket’s occasional cheesy zoom-ins and the use of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” as a theme song) that enlivens and deepens the documentary qualities.
The film’s slippery tone marks it as slightly out-of-step with our present moment. In most contemporary narratives, a protagonist’s messy or problematic behavior is presented as stemming from some central trauma (examples include the series Fleabag (2016–19) or Raven Leilani’s recent novel Luster (2020) or—a far more extreme variation—Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019)). Red Rocket alludes to trauma, at times, but the film doesn’t center it. Rather, with its attention to masculine beauty and its conjuring of morally-ambiguous pleasure, the film evokes the grungier early days of queer cinema.
In a landmark 1992 Village Voice essay, B. Ruby Rich described the recent wave of independent LGBT films she’d seen at the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals as comprising a “New Queer Cinema”: “Definitively breaking with older humanist approaches and the films and tapes that accompanied identity politics, these works are irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive. Above all, they’re full of pleasure.” According to Rich, these films were new because they were less interested in literal-mindedness and special pleading; they were interested in artifice and play and pleasure, even—perhaps especially—disreputable pleasure. Films like Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991) and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992) toy with the open artifice of genre (noir, horror, tabloid TV) and invite audiences to identify queasily with marginalized subjects who are not blameless victims (the “humanist approach”) but blatantly criminal. Baker imports similar moves to our gig-economy present—where financial pressure exerts even more force than sexual longing—a landscape in which economic uncertainty and desire get all scrambled up because so many people now turn to sex work in order to survive. (It is also a landscape in which Baker is as likely to spot performers for his movies on Instagram as in an Off-Broadway play.) He scrambles camp with realism, irony with politics, professional with non-professional actors, lo-fi filmmaking (Red Rocket was shot for a million dollars with only 10 crew members, and Tangerine, of course, was famously shot on iPhones) with rococo narratives.
In her essay on New Queer Cinema, Rich also refers offhandedly to the contemporaneous Basic Instinct (1992) being “picketed by the self-righteous wing of the queer community (until dykes began to discover how much fun it was).” The problem of fun, the problem of pleasure—these are moral knots that movies have always struggled with because movies can so easily make terrible behavior seem incredibly appealing. Paul Thomas Anderson’s current 70s coming-of-age comedy, Licorice Pizza (2021), skirts the problem of its age-inappropriate relationship by (nearly) banishing sex from the Alana-Gary dynamic, gauzily idealizing them as platonic soulmates. For all its brash idiosyncrasy and memoiristic texture, Licorice Pizza is far closer to the dubious male fantasy some have accused Red Rocket of being. In Anderson’s film, we are meant to be ultimately charmed by the spectacle of a doofy earnest male winning the affection and respect of a sharp-edged, complex female protagonist—he’s the best that she can do, apparently. Red Rocket never asks us to root for Mikey and Strawberry, but it does ask us to feel what they’re feeling—even when those emotions are wayward and troublesome.
In Red Rocket, the radical element gets expunged from a conservative community and the questions are: Has he changed? Will he do better? How will he survive next?