Mikey Saber, the bright-eyed bullshitter at the center of Red Rocket (★★★★☆), isn’t the cleverest liar, but he knows how to sprinkle just enough truth on his lies to make them believable. And if one lie doesn’t work, he always has another, or a ready excuse, a joke, or a compliment, whatever he thinks might ingratiate him with whomever’s on the receiving end of whatever angle he’s working. Since Mikey is never not working an angle.
Filmmaker Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch — collaborators here and on trans drama Tangerine and Oscar nominee The Florida Project — have a knack for spinning engrossing tales around wily working-class or poor folks hustling along the margins of the American dream. For this portrait of an ex-porn star whose tank is running desperately low on options and charm, Baker finds a simple, effective rhythm that keeps the movie flowing, propelled by a dynamic lead performance by Simon Rex.
The erstwhile Scary Movie star, MTV VJ, and model with his own adult movie past plays Mikey as a squirrelly fast-talker who stays hustling. Even at rest, his mind is making moves to gain the upper hand in every relationship. Yet, for all that hustle, and after a high-flying stint in L.A., he’s landed back in his Gulf coast Texas hometown, crashing on a couch in the modest clapboard house his ex Lexi (Bree Elrod) shares with her mom Lil (Brenda Deiss).
Both ladies look even more beat up by life than Mikey does, with Lexi, who also used to do porn in L.A., demanding to know of their self-serving houseguest, “What do you want?” In due time, the film lays out a potential path of redemption for him, should Mikey choose to go that route. He might also just be an opportunistic con artist licking his wounds while he scopes out his next score, with no real interest in being a better man. Once he meets and sets his sights on flirty teenage donut shop clerk Strawberry (Suzanna Son), it becomes clear which path Mikey will choose.
Heartbreak or worse is inevitable — we need only anticipate how cruel, painful, or just the final blow will feel once it slams into Mikey’s plans. Baker, who also edited, allows the story to unfold in crisp, humorous glimpses of Mikey rambling around on a borrowed bike in his tank top and baggy acid-washed jeans, selling weed for hood queenpin Leondria (Judy Hill) to refinery hardhats, or seducing Strawberry at the donut shop.
The script and Son’s knowing performance as the precocious pastry pusher tease whether Strawberry might be the one seducing him. But then, it also definitively observes that regardless of how cute Mikey thinks he is, he’s running his game on a naïve girl young enough to be his daughter. He’s a nice and friendly creep, who’s smart enough to know that he doesn’t have to cause trouble. He just can’t stop, even when he runs up against someone utterly immune to his appeal, like Leondria’s stony lieutenant, her daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez).
As the story plays out over several weeks in 2016, with another bluffer’s presidential campaign bellowing from TVs and radios in the background, the film builds a compelling case for savvy, silent hustlers like June, who sees through Mikey’s bullshit. She could offer him lessons on how to really get things done, if he ever slowed his pitch long enough to listen and learn.
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