According to “Red Rocket,” the latest movie — raunchy, restless, cinematically vital — from writer-director Sean Baker, the oil refinery Gulf Coast town of Texas City, Texas offers limited options to a guy like Mikey Saber.

He’s a onetime LA “adult film actor” played by Simon Rex in a ripping performance. By bus, Mikey has returned home, bruised and near-penniless, where his long-estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) lives with her wised-up, chain-smoking mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss). Once he finagles his way back into the house for “a few days,” first on the couch and then in Lexi’s bed, “Red Rocket” follows this brazen rake’s progress as he scrambles to get some money and get back out of town.

He sells weed to the local refinery workers, supplied by family friend Leondria (Judy Hill) and her scowling daughter (Brittany Rodriguez). He reacquaints himself with his old classmate Lonnie (Ethan Darbone, heartbreakingly funny). Crucially to the plot, Mikey also becomes involved with Raylee, the doughnut shop employee (Suzanna Son) who calls herself “Strawberry.” She is 17. Mikey is somewhere in his early 40s. This makes him a crime scene in perpetual motion.

The movie’s set in 2016: On TV screens, sound bites from the presidential election add a wash of seriocomic disaster unfolding in slow motion. Mikey, with his shifty exuberance and gift for high-velocity gab, is more like a disaster in fast motion, always. How Mikey launches into a heedless double life in Texas City, lying, cheating, enjoying his temporary good fortunes, gives “Red Rocket” its comic momentum.

Baker is on a streak: “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project” were among the most distinctive, ground-level slices of life of their respective years. The premise here, of course, is galling: Mikey and Strawberry’s relationship is both sexual and, as Mikey hopes — he’s grooming her for a career in porn, and a return to the business for himself — transactional. The film does not lionize the character, but building a film around this character, today, will be several bridges too far for any number of viewers.

Baker and cinematographer Drew Daniels shot “Red Rocket” in a hurry, on 16 millimeter film, with a slew of non-actors or first-timers backing up the pros. Baker’s eye for composition is strikingly good; he knows when to pivot off Mikey and over to the long-suffering women in his scattershot life. The first hour is terrific; the second one, disappointingly, grows weaker and more conventional. Son’s Strawberry fills in the blanks of a character that never fully transcends Lone Star Lolita status (though many critics, female and male, see it otherwise).

Most of the jokes aren’t punchline jokes; they’re casual, lived-in, oddball comments or sly moments of truth. “Can you please inform your mother I’m not a dick?” Mikey pleads to his long-abandoned wife early in “Red Rocket.” Lexi’s response, after a pause: “Why would I lie to my mother?”


‘Red Rocket’ — 3 stars

MPAA rating: R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and pervasive language)

Running time: 2:08

Where to watch: Premieres Dec. 17 in theaters.


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