Red Rocket, known during production as “How to Remain Likable While Trying to Turn a Teenage Girl Into a Porn Star,” is Sean Baker’s follow up to the award-winning The Florida Project. It may not be quite as endearing or enduring, but it’s a highly entertaining, amazingly acted, and original comedy-drama.
Simon Rex is downright incredible as Mikey, who shows up at his ex-wife’s house and uses his pure charisma and manic charm to woo his way inside, immediately bestowing on her and her beleaguered mother the benefits (his hustler’s ability to make ends meet) and detriments (practically everything else) he brings to the table.
Red Rocket is at its best in these early stages, when the movie seems to be about not much more than Mikey doing his thing, talking himself into new opportunities while simultaneously bugging the shit out of everyone around him. He’s a prism of energy, well meaning in some respects and, as the story progresses, you realize a scumbag in most others.
By scumbag, I mean shitbag.
The movie edges into darker territory over time, and your love or tolerance for the film will in part depend on your willingness to go along for the ride. Baker has always been unapologetic about his characters; he has a way of tapping into the positive side of shady people, remaining sympathetic to their characters while not necessarily condoning their actions. Mikey’s increased fascination with the 17-year-old redhead who works at the local donut shop at first plays like a subplot only for it to become center stage. Even when Mikey is being as ridiculous as ever, the circumstances become increasingly unsettling and disturbing.
At least if you let them be. Baker’s crafty script, powered not only by Rex’s sensational performance but those of Suzanna Son, Bree Elrond, and Brenda Deiss, among others, somehow manages to make you want everything to work out for Mikey in the end despite his deplorable intentions. It’s not that Baker is trying to condone what Mikey does; it’s simply that Mikey is his character and Mikey is going to do what he’s going to do.
Red Rocket misfires a bit in the film’s 20 minutes-things come to a head so quickly it’s hard to understand exactly what is happening as shit goes sideways. The final minute will likely stir divisive opinions the same way the ending of The Florida Project did; personally I would have gone another direction.
Even still, the energy, performances, and raw dynamics on display are hard to dispute, making Red Rocket one of the best movies of 2021.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.