In the movement to destigmatize sex work, Sean Baker is leading the charge. All four of his feature films have been about sex workers, and they make that job seem much like other jobs. For the prostitutes of Tangerine and The Florida Project and the porn actors of Starlet and his new film, Red Rocket, the work is degrading at times, boring at others, and can wreak havoc on a personal life, but it’s a way to pay the bills. Don’t underestimate what that means in this economy. Red Rocket is different in that the sex worker in question is a man, and the same week that Paul Thomas Anderson opens a film about an age-inappropriate friendship, Baker opens this one that’s altogether funnier.
The story takes place in summer 2016, when a beaten-up Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) returns to his home in Texas City after 15 years working in adult films in L.A. He moves back in with his wife (Bree Elrod), a former porn star whom he never bothered to divorce, and surprisingly fulfills his promise to pay rent by selling weed to the refinery workers at the donut shop where they hang out — why are so many of Baker’s movies set at donut shops? Anyway, working at that shop is Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a red-haired 17-year-old girl who flirts with him behind the counter and then grabs his penis one day. Mikey thinks this is too good to be true.
You’re probably getting a sense of why people want to beat him up all the time. Even so, Mikey sees Strawberry as his ticket back to L.A. — she’s pretty, she loves sex, she exudes youthful vibrancy, she thinks it’s cool when she finds out that Mikey is a porn star, she’s willing to make a sex tape with him, and a few weeks short of her 18th birthday, she’ll soon be legal to work in the industry. Never mind that she’s lukewarm at best when Mikey brings up the possibility of a porn career, or that, y’know, he’s still married to a woman he depends on for food and shelter. He’s starry-eyed at the prospect of managing someone he calls “a Sasha Grey/Jenna Jameson-level find.”
Rex was a porn star in real life, though he does have experience in quote-unquote legitimate filmmaking, acting in several of the Scary Movie sequels. (Maybe you recall him rapping for a Black crowd while wearing a white hoodie that comes to an unfortunate point.) He excels as the motor-mouthed Mikey, who always seems to have a litany of excuses about why he’s in his latest trouble. He’s matched by the incandescent Son, making her feature film debut.
The motif of Donald Trump speaking from all the TVs in the background is a touch heavy-handed as a signal that these characters are living on the margins and looking for something better. Even so, I find Red Rocket better than Zola as a raunchy romp through the world of sex for hire. Mikey mentions in tragic tones an ex-colleague who is living a boring suburban life in Salt Lake City, but that (even the part about Salt Lake City) seems preferable to his nonstop hustling life, where he’s forever condemned to climb out of women’s windows and run down the street wearing not enough clothes. Sean Baker finds the tragedy and comedy in this guy’s life, which gives his grungy film its hilarious kick.
Starring Simon Rex and Suzanna Son. Written and directed by Sean Baker. Rated R.