Mikey’s return home to his small Texas town is anything but auspicious. When he (Simon Rex) left years before alongside his new bride Lexi (Bree Elrod) heading to Los Angeles with plans and stars in their eyes. Lexi came returned a few years later to live with her mother, and now a flat broke Mikey is looking to crash on the women’s couch for a few weeks in exchange for some chores around the house and getting some time to get back on his feet. Getting a job proves to be a bit of a challenge, as most of the businesses in town aren’t thrilled that the seventeen-year gap in his resume was from the time he was working in porn. As Mikey slowly starts to rebuild his life and repair his fractured relationship with Lexi, he also meets high school senior Strawberry (Suzanna Son) who works at the local doughnut shop. And in her, he sees a possible way back to his former life in LA.
Shot on the outskirts of Galveston, Texas, Red Rocket continues director Sean Baker’s exploration of the life of people on the fringes of society trying for a better life that have marked his previous films like Tangerine and and The Florida Project. Here he and screenwriter Chris Bergoch tweak their usual approach a bit with a protagonist who managed to escape their poverty for a taste of success before it all came crashing down and they had to retreat back home. That is, if we can even belief everything that Mikey says about his time in Los Angeles, and there is really no reason that we should.
Rex’s casting in the role of Mikey is a stroke of genius on the part of Baker, who reportedly only invited him onto the project three days before shooting began. Rex infuses Mikey with just the right combination of hustle and charm so that we feel bad for him that things seem to have not worked out for him. Rex himself had just a short porn career before becoming an MTV VJ in the mid-90s. He transitioned to acting making appearances in the first season of the 2002 WB sitcom What I Like About You and a few installments of the Scary Movie parody franchise among other things. He’s had work, but nothing that ever broke him out in the big way that Mikey is also searching for. Perhaps this film might.
Ultimately, though, Baker is presenting us with a difficult conundrum concerning Mikey. We want to like him. Sure, he may be a bit of dumb and been dealt a couple of bad hands over the years. And he most likely has been the architect of some of his own misfortune on more than one occasion. His charisma carries him part way through life and leaves us wondering if he is a conman, self-deluded or just a bit of both. It is a charmingly goofy performance from Rex that leaves us wanting Mikey to maybe get that next chance at grabbing the brass ring that he is so desperate for.
But then there is his relationship with Strawberry. When they first meet, she casually informs him that she is still a few weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday. And while she may have been the first to engage any kind of physical contact between the two when she grabs his crotch later, it is hard not to see their dynamic of one where he is a sexual predator grooming her. Baker presents this with no judgement. If anything he, muddies the water by giving Strawberry a sexual history of her own and what could be her own agency in her relationship with Mikey. Is he using her? Is she using him to escape her small town life? It is a situation that can make portions of the second half of the Red Rocket uncomfortable, but leaves us with much to ponder and discuss afterwards.