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‘Red Rocket’: ‘Florida Project’ director makes a gem about a cad who can’t be trusted

The blazingly original film features an electric lead performance by C-List actor Simon Rex.

Mikey (Simon Rex) turns on the charm for the much younger Raylee (Suzanna Son) in “Red Rocket.”
A24

He’s Porn Again.

Maybe. Probably not.

From the moment Simon Rex’s rag-dog handsome Mikey shows up at his estranged wife’s door in their hometown of Texas City, his face battered and bruised, his clothes rumpled and grimy, his pockets nearly empty, we can tell this guy has been nothing but trouble his whole life and he’s never gonna change — and yet he often has managed to scrape by on his looks and his oily charm and his uncanny ability to get people to give him a second chance, a third chance, maybe even one more chance after that. His infectious charisma works, until it doesn’t — and when it doesn’t, Mikey gets what’s coming to him and then some.

“Red Rocket” is the latest blazingly original gem from director/co-writer Sean Baker, who in films such as “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project” has displayed an uncanny ability to carve out offbeat slices of life in the American subculture. (“Tangerine” was about the adventures of two transgender sex workers in Hollywood, while “The Florida Project” was a concrete-jungle fairy tale about two 6-year-old girls living within sight of and yet a world away from Walt Disney World.) This time around, much of the subject matter is dicey and might well be deemed offensive by some viewers, but Baker handles the sensitive material without exploitation. This is an admirable work centering on a man who has likely never done an admirable thing in his entire rotten life — a man who beams with joy and is brimming with optimism even as he spins his latest scams and manipulates (or at least tries to manipulate) everyone he knows and everyone he’s just met.

Simon Rex, whose resume includes model, MTV VJ, bit-part actor (and before that, way back in the day, porn video performer), is absolutely electric as Mikey, who has spent the last 17 years as an adult film actor in Los Angeles but has fallen on rough times and in the summer of 2016 has returned to his hometown of Texas City on the Gulf Coast, where he turns up on the doorstep of the rundown home where his world-weary wife and former porn co-star Lexi (Bree Elrod) and Bree’s flinty mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) live together. They want nothing to do with Mikey, but he talks his way into the house to take a shower, which turns into Mikey staying for a couple of days, and the next thing you know Mikey has become a permanent fixture on the couch, watching trash TV with his hilariously hard-bitten mother-in-law and working his way back into Lexi’s good graces and her bed.

Pedaling about town on a rickety bike, Mikey strikes up an pot-dealing arrangement with the local weed supplier Leondria (Judy Hill), who operates out of her backyard with the assistance of her bad-ass daughter June (Brittany Rodriguez) and her son Ernesto (Marlon Lambert), a high school classmate of Mikey’s who didn’t like him then and doesn’t much like him now. Mikey’s pedaling travels also bring him inside the Donut Hole, where he sets his predatory sights on a red-haired, 17-year-girl (Suzanna Son) named Raylee, who calls herself Strawberry and is so obviously restless in this nowhere town and bored with her nowhere future that she’s game for hooking up with Mikey in more ways than one. Strawberry sees Mikey as a means to escape Texas City, while Mikey sees Strawberry as his meal ticket to return to California and the world of porn — with Strawberry as his new discovery.

“Red Rocket” is shot in 16mm with a variety of lenses, with cinematographer Drew Daniels infusing the visuals with bright pinks and high skies in the daytime, and saturated, dreamlike greens and blues at night. The story veers into darkly funny territory with the introduction of such characters as the idiot Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), who lives next door to Lexi and Lil, idolizes Mikey and becomes his driver and gopher, which eventually results in a tragedy; and Strawberry’s semi-boyfriend Nash (Parker Bigham) and Nash’s parents (Dustin “Hitman” Hart and Brandy Kirl), who look and act as if they’ve just returned from an appearance on “The Maury Povich Show.” (Strawberry’s disapproving boss at the Donut Hole, Ms. Phan, is played by Shih Ching-Tsou, who was previously played a donut shop boss in Baker’s “Tangerine.”)

Amidst all the chaos and the occasional shocking burst of violence and loss, “Red Rocket” has its moments of quiet beauty, as when Strawberry performs a lovely keyboard version of ’N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” the unofficial theme song of the story. In that moment, we can only hope this girl finds another path out of Texas City that doesn’t involve Mikey. He’s a walking and talking Bad Memory.