VIFF 2021 REVIEW: ‘Red Rocket’ (2021) Reinvents The Hero’s Journey

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“Another beautiful gem in the A24 library.”

In Sean Baker’s anticipated follow-up to The Florida Project, he teams up with unlikely yet ultimate leading man Simon Rex in A24’s Red Rocket. Rex plays Mikey, a washed-up and aged-out former adult film star who makes the shameful return home to Texas City from Los Angeles. With nothing but the faded gray wifebeater tank on his back, he shows up on his ex-wife Lexie’s (Bree Elrod) doorstep begging for somewhere to stay. She threatens to call the cops and tries to stand her ground, but he sweet talks her and connives his way inside, promising Lexie and her mom Lil (Brenda Deiss) that he’ll pitch in with rent and help around the house.

With no skill other than winning the AVN Award for Best Oral, Mikey is unable to land a job. So he falls back on his go-to pre-porn fame gig, selling weed (which is still criminalized in Texas). He rolls up dozens of joints using American flag rolling papers while he, Lexie, and Lil watch coverage of the incoming 2016 election— technically, this is a period piece. After pushing enough joints to cover rent for the month and then some, Mikey takes the ladies out for a treat to the Donut Hole where he comes across young Strawberry (yes, that’s her name), a Brandy Melville-clad seventeen-year-old with ginger hair, freckled cheeks and matching rouged lips and cheeks. Mikey is entranced by her youthful, electric, juvenile, hyper-girly spirit and decides to shift all his time and energy into wooing her— and it works.

Image courtesy of A24

Mikey is a flawed protagonist, but his charisma and dedication to being a lowlife make the viewers like him and root for his success. The slightly overly long runtime spends a majority of its time searching for Mikey’s character transformation. He’s supposed to have his evolution, this metamorphosis, because audiences have seen it in movies before where the failed man returns home for salvation and finds it in his city or with his family. But Mikey as the audience knows him will never learn, which sucks for him, but the real transformation lies within Lexie the exie. At first she takes his crap— he lies through his teeth and yells in her face and grabs her by the shoulders, and Lexie accepts it as the byproduct of having Mikey back. The familiarity is comforting and she succumbs to Mikey’s charm and false promises, and of course to the sex (it becomes apparent why later when Simon Rex goes full-frontal). She allows him back into her fragile yet steel-coated heart, and in the end, gets totally played by him.

Moviegoers will hear a lot about Simon Rex’s career-defining performance in this movie. He deserves a Best Actor nod for his portrayal of Mikey, as well as a retroactive Oscar for Scary Movie 3. But in fact it is Bree Elrod’s Lexie that steals the screen— every facial expression, flick of her cigarette, high-pitched scream is absolutely perfect. It’s her character’s transformation that is the real hero’s journey the film so desperately needed after being failed by its protagonist. 

Image courtesy of A24

There’s not a lot to gripe about in Red Rocket. One could take the time to discuss why Baker felt the need to place the film leading up to the 2016 U.S. election and why those reasons are so on the nose, but it’s honestly not worth the conversation. The film takes place in a slightly more ignorant reality that glides over the deep issues, much like Mikey does. 

Considering the film was written, shot (in only 24 days), and released all in the time of COVID, it’s a significant artistic achievement and an incredibly fun watch. The cinematography perfectly embodies the margins of society that it captures; in this case, the drab refinery town of Texas City. Every actor, most of whom were street-cast aside from the three leads, brings a tangible realness and so much laughter to the movie. Everything Baker has done right in his past films he does here, plus adding a new grin-worthy liveliness that makes Red Rocket another beautiful gem in the A24 library.

Dir: Sean Baker

Prod: Sean Baker, Alex Coco, Ben Browning

Cast: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son

Release Date: 2020

Available on: In Theatres December 3