VIFF 2021 Review: Red Rocket

Written by Taylor Baker

85/100

What happens when there’s a global epidemic and the film you’d been planning to shoot can’t be shot? For Sean Baker the answer to that question is Red Rocket. A long gestating idea that’s been percolating around his mind since researching for his 2012 film Starlet which he also co-wrote with Chris Bergoch. In Sean’s own words Red Rocket is a story about a narcissistic suitcase pimp(though it sounds like you can’t be a suitcase pimp without the narcism) who’s more than just “kind of a piece of shit”.

Red Rocket starts out with a bruised Mikey Saber passed out in the back of a car headed from California to Texas. We don’t know who he is, why we’re entering the story with him now, or anything about him besides his visibly rough circumstances. Baker, true to his filmmaking core, is sharing a slice of life film with us again. This time it’s the life of an ex-pornstar and his return to Texas City, Texas. But once again Baker’s film is predicated upon characters on the margins of society, eking out an existence where films other his so rarely look.

After walking an unknown distance Mikey knocks on the door of a ramshackle home to request shelter from Lexi, a woman he seems to have a history with. Her mother Lil, played by Brenda Deiss, also lives with Lexi. It seems these two have been through this sort of thing before as they protest and run through the laundry list of reasons why he’s no good and can’t stay. So, naturally he stays, promising to pay for rent just as soon as he gets a job. Which he needs an extension on because he can’t go apply for jobs looking all beat up like he is now.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2021

After surprisingly applying seemingly everywhere all around town Mikey goes to an old connection of his to see if he can deal marijuana for her again like he did when he was a kid, and slowly Mikey goes about building up a clientele and providing a high quality product that rather than take up the meat of the story with, Baker eschews to the margins of his narrative fabric with details visually shown without fanfare like Mikey always lugging around with his backpack which we know is full of bud or discussing the act of dealing itself but in very few scenes do we actually see him dealing. He is selling so much in fact that he’s able to pay for the month’s rent at once instead of weekly, which gives Lexi, Lil, and Mikey reason to celebrate. So naturally they go down to the local donut shop for the biggest coffees they serve and as many donuts as either Lexi or Lil desire. This is also the moment Mikey meets Rayleigh, a 17 year old girl who works the counter of the donut shop on Wednesday’s after school.

Mikey skeezily begins to build a relationship with Rayleigh who urges Mikey to call her Strawberry instead of Rayleigh. “That’s what my friends call me.” Mikey begins grooming this 17 year old girl immediately. Going to great lengths to convince her that he’s a hotshot agent from LA. Which leads to one of the funniest running gags in the film, Mikey tossing his bike in the back of Strawberry’s mother’s truck to drive him “home” which is a large and luxurious house that stands starkly against the ramshackle exterior of where he currently hangs his hat. He feigns walking to the door as she drives away and as soon as she turns the corner he turns around and begins pedaling his bike back to the home he’s sharing with Lexi and Lil. Whom Strawberry doesn’t know even exist.

Trey Edward Schults mainstay collaborator Drew Daniels serves as cinematographer for Red Rocket. His images are as sumptuous and bedecked in a shading of light and shadow as ever. Images that simply reek of excellence. If you were to put some of the night time exterior bike riding or truck sequences alongside the truck sequences from Waves it would be hard to tell which shot or sequence belongs in which film. Baker serves not only as Director but Editor of the film, per usual. He experiments more with comedy and horror conventions than I’ve previously seen in a way that while cartoonish breathes a different sense of movie magic into his film that previous entries haven’t had, at least not the films from him that I’ve seen. Which also makes some of the harder to chew on details just a bit more bearable. There’s a great deal of significant events, reveals, and plot generalities that sharing in detail would remove the quality of the experience from, so for now I’ll leave the details of Red Rocket at that. Red Rocket feels familiar but treads ground rarely explored with great craftsmanship and tonal command. As Sean Baker said when he introduced the film to us, “It is a dramedy so if you feel like laughing, please laugh!”

Red Rocket Trailer

Red Rocket was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

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