Red Rocket is an ironic pop takedown of the American Dream

The new film by Sean Baker (The Florida Project, Tangerine) also inarguably features the best use of N’Sync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye” in the history of cinema.

Red Rocket, a term that references both a popular children’s toy and a dog’s erection, is an incredibly apt description of Mikey Saber, the lead character in Sean Baker’s latest film. Mikey, a washed-up horndog who fled the city to his small Texas town,  is already plotting his return to Silicon Valley when he arrives at his estranged wife’s door. He’s a ruthless charmer with sociopathic tendencies. Through Baker’s ironic gaze, which veers between magical realism and stark neorealist tendencies, Mikey comes to represent a facet of the American Dream tainted by entitlement and stark individualism.

Trump blares in the background of critical moments of the film. Rarely addressed by name, but an omnipresent force, the maximalism of Trump’s tenure as president runs heavily in this film. This is simultaneously obnoxious and essential for understanding Baker and Mikey’s worldview, which regards the human experience as transactional. Every interaction, every pleasure and every emotion has the potential to be monetized. If it makes you feel good, Mikey wants to make money off it. 

Like Trump, Mikey charms people susceptible to his promises. His over-the-top decadence and indulgence feel aspirational for those looking for a saviour. In the leading role, Simon Rex has a sleepy-eyed handsomeness that offsets his most reprehensible qualities. He seems simultaneously beaten down and almost childlike in his boundless energy. His appeal is un-mysterious but also sinister. He’s a ruiner of dreams, even (or mainly) his own.

Mikey falls for an underage worker at a local donut shop. She’s a coy and flirtatious redhead who goes by the name Strawberry. As seen through Mikey’s eyes, she’s a porno fantasy. She’s cute, innocent and sexually insatiable. Not only does he make himself out to be her much older boyfriend, he decides he wants to bring her back to California and make her a star.

Simon Rex (left) in Red Rocket

The fact that the story is told through Mikey’s rose-coloured glasses informs the tone and aesthetics of the film. The movie literally seems infected by various hues of pink — the donuts, the golden light of summer, Strawberry’s… everything. As we see the world through Mikey’s eyes, everything he wants seems to be filtered through commercial aesthetics. Everything he doesn’t want — his estranged wife, responsability, small-town life — has the more drab aesthetics of documentary cinema. There’s no firm line between these two perspectives, and the film veers between them from moment to moment, scene to scene.

Despite Mikey’s single-mindedness, he seems well-aware of his worst impulses. In one moment with Strawberry, she sings for him. It’s a beautiful moment that hits him to his core. She’s talented, she’s young and she has dreams. Even Mikey, however fleetingly, seems aware that he’s robbing her of true aspirations. Throughout their relationship, he manipulates and pushes her towards ideas and dreams that are not hers. Vulnerable and underage, she nonetheless holds her ground, but Mikey is relentless in his pursuit of fame and fortune even if it means ruining someone else’s life.

Red Rocket is just another retelling of a social-climbing anti-hero in many ways. Baker’s pop aesthetics lend the film something that feels fresh, and the contemporary framing hints at a virulent sickness deep at the heart of the American experience. Men like Mikey are not aberrations in a culture that values overnight success and individualism. Mikey’s only flaw, in their eyes, is that he’s not a success; if he were, his behaviour would be far more acceptable.

Your mileage with Red Rocket will heavily depend on your relationship with Sean Baker’s other films. If you loved Tangerine and The Florida Project, you’d probably love this. If you think he’s exploitative and annoying, it seems unlikely this movie will change your mind. Or, perhaps you’re like me and you veer between the two: lost in his larger-than-life characterizations but also irked by his navel-gazing depictions of America’s underground. Or maybe I’m among many who has burned out on the over-saturated world of Trump art. ■

Red Rocket, directed by Sean Baker

Red Rocket opened in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 17, and is streaming now in Canada on MUBI.

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