‘Red Rocket’ Movie Review: Sean Baker’s Simon Rex-Starring Comedy Drama Is Well-Blessed [AFI Fest 2021]

Writer/director Sean Baker explores raw narratives that mainstream Hollywood would never touch. Most recently in his career, Tangerine and The Florida Project are exceptional independent filmmaking with rich, complex characters. However, Baker always manages to find the perfect balance between his hard-hitting comedy and engaging drama. His newest movie Red Rocket is his strongest work yet in what’s certainly one of the year’s very best movies.

‘Red Rocket’ sees Simon Rex’s Mikey return to his hometown

'Red Rocket' actor Simon Rex as Mikey smiling as he's riding his bike outside
Simon Rex as Mikey | A24 Films

Mikey (Rex) is returning home to his small Texas town after being gone for years. He previously moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in porn as an actor and a manager. However, things turned sour and he’s now forced to confront his past with a badly-bruised face, including his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and his mother-in-law, Lil (Brenda Deiss). The problem is that most people from this small town can’t stand Mikey and already want him gone.

The washed-up porn star is a pathological user. Mikey takes advantage of people to get himself ahead and he’s willing to do anything to get where he wants to be. He meets a young girl named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) at a donut shop. Their evolving relationship sets Mikey further down the path of lies and deceit. Will he achieve the life he’s always wanted, or will it destroy him?

‘Red Rocket’ is a relentless roller coaster ride

Red Rocket doesn’t establish any sort of status quo. It immediately throws the audience in with no prior knowledge of the characters or their predicaments. Mikey is the disruptor of this small Texas town. We don’t know why nobody wants him there, but almost everybody he reconnects with wants nothing to do with him. Baker’s screenplay slowly lets the viewer in on his past. Mikey becomes increasingly despicable, yet his story remains captivating.

Baker explores America’s underbelly, but it also addresses societal and cultural stigmas around sexuality. Red Rocket directly draws attention to sexual double standards, especially as it applies to the porn industry. Male performers and female performers are treated vastly differently, which is a recurring gag throughout the movie.

Red Rocket is a nonstop rush. It never pauses to take a breath, fully conveying the chaos and destruction that Mikey brings with him wherever he goes. However, the movie occasionally hints at cracks in Mikey’s seemingly impenetrable armor of confidence. Baker simultaneously critiques and pokes fun at female exploitation, predatory behavior, and the male ego, all of which Mikey exhibits. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s the point.

One of the best films of the year

'Red Rocket' actors Bree Elrod as Lexi and Simon Rex as Mikey smoking cigarettes leaning on a fence outside
L-R: Bree Elrod as Lexi and Simon Rex as Mikey | A24 Films

Similar to Tangerine, Red Rocket has a donut shop as a significant location. Mikey meets Strawberry at the Donut Hole shop, which acts as a pivotal turning point. Cinematographer Drew Daniels provides a fittingly grainy image that really boosts the image’s greenery and bright colors. Baker provides stellar direction that further absorbs the viewer deeper into the setting. Additionally, the decision to include *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” is the most iconic song choice in a movie since Spring Breakers used Britney Spears’ “Everytime.”

Rex is magnetic. He proves all of the naysayers wrong with his spellbinding performance. He has excellent comedic timing and fully understands the nuances of the character. No matter how despicable Mikey’s actions become, Rex makes him undeniably captivating on the screen. Elrod’s Lexi is also rather impressive. There’s a lot of comedy sprinkled throughout the movie, but she also delivers on the character’s dramatic beats.

Red Rocket is absolutely bonkers in a way that only Baker could do. He continues to prove himself to be a force to be reckoned with. There’s a lot to unpack in his newest piece of social and cultural commentary, but it’s also wildly entertaining, utterly hilarious, and dramatically meaningful. It’s unlike anything else that you’ll see at the movies this year, making it a real treat. Red Rocket is without a doubt one of the best movies of the year.

Red Rocket hits theaters Dec. 10.

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