I was given the opportunity to write about any American indie film for the new “21st Century Film Essentials” series from UT Press. I chose The Florida Project (2017) because I believe that Sean Baker is simply one of the best indie filmmakers working today. The chance to study the film in-depth has only given me greater admiration for his unorthodox approach to making films.
Painter and film critic Manny Farber expressed disdain for artists who aim to create highly contrived masterpieces, which he deemed “white elephant art.” In contrast, he used the term “termite art” to champion, in Alex Abramovich’s words, “small, stolen moments and improvised gestures, which he tended to find in collective productions that left lots of room for surprise.” As I demonstrate in my extended analysis of The Florida Project, Baker is a consummate termite artist. A film for him is nothing short of a high-wire act—full of daredevil-like risks that fuel the energy of the work. From casting inexperienced first-time actors in major roles, to keeping the script in a state of flux, to improvising throughout the process, Baker has become a master of unpredictable moments that feel somehow remarkably “alive.”
After his next major project was cancelled due to Covid, Baker quickly switched gears and shot Red Rocket (2021) with a skeletal crew on 16mm with anamorphic lenses. In a feat of stunt casting, he resurrected Simon Rex to play a washed-up, ex-porn star, Mikey Saber, trying to hustle his way back into the business. Seeing the film at the NYFF and now that it has opened theatrically has once again confirmed that Sean Baker is something of a cinematic magician. Despite its low budget, Red Rocket manages to outshine those large-budget star vehicles that tend to dominate at the box office in a way that Manny Farber would no doubt celebrate.
Mickey Saber is down on his luck. Full of physical bruises, he returns home to Texas City from Hollywood. Mikey has to use his charm and wits to get back into the good graces of his wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her crusty mom, Lil (Brenda Deiss) in order to have a place to crash. Baker and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch provide much of Mikey’s backstory through Saber’s motor-mouthed monologues. His self-pitying rants aim to generate sympathy for his unfortunate plight, but inadvertently reveal his unbridled narcissism.
With his chiseled good looks, Mikey’s is always out to seduce—he is after all a hustler and a con artist. His charm proves alluring to some, such as his lanky next-door neighbor, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), who relishes hearing about Mikey’s tales of his life in the adult film industry while he chauffeurs him around town. Not everyone finds Mikey endearing, especially the Black neighbors—a matriarch named Leondria (Judy Hill), her son, Ernesto (Marlon Lambert), and daughter, June (Brittney Rodriguez)—who run an illicit weed trade that will provide him with temporary employment.
Once Mikey discovers a young teenager named “Strawberry” (newcomer Suzanna Son) at the local doughnut shop, he immediately becomes obsessed. His fixation has less to do with a romantic infatuation with the teen than the fact that Mikey sees her as his ticket back into the porn industry. There are some who will have a knee-jerk reaction to Mikey’s sexual relationship with someone underage, but Baker has made a career of challenging audiences. First and foremost, Red Rocket is a character study of a certain sleazy type you find in LA. Or as Simon Rex told Collider, “It’s a character study on the frustrating assholes that are out there in the world that will do whatever it takes and walk all over you.”
In his portrayal of Mikey Saber, Rex is able to add various layers to his character. Mikey is delusional, to be sure, but he’s also damn funny and knows it. Rex often hints that he’s aware that he’s “performing” the role of hustler, such as his corny, ingratiating solicitation of Strawberry, or his smart-alack responses to potential employers. Baker provides a context for the character of Mikey by setting the film during the 2016 presidential election. In clips, we hear and glimpse another con artist and former reality TV star, suggesting that the upcoming election is rigged.
Red Rocket, Baker’s seventh feature, might be his most complex and impressive in terms of sheer mastery of filmmaking. For a film with so many first-time actors in major roles, the performances—thanks to acting coach Samantha Quan—are uniformly excellent. Simon Rex imbues his part with a remarkable physicality and sense of humor, while Suzanna Son plays Strawberry with a perfect mixture of innocence and guile. Rex and Son were nominated for Gotham and Indie Spirit Awards. In addition, Rex just won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor. Place has always been a critical element in Baker’s films. The story plays out against a backdrop of real locations and industrial oil refineries, spewing smoke and flames, that seem perfectly suited to the hardscrabble characters who populate the film.
Red Rocket is a dark comedy, as well as Baker’s funniest film since Tangerine (2015). It is also the fourth straight film since Starlet (2012) to deal with the subject of sex workers. The film grew out of his previous research into the adult film industry, where he met characters similar to Mikey—guys who live off the exploitation of young women. Baker admits he found these men fascinating and reprehensible at the same time, which is what drew him to create such a character.
Red Rocket, which played at Cannes, Telluride, and the NYFF, opened its theatrical run in NYC and LA last weekend, before expanding nationally, giving moviegoers a chance to see one of the best indie films of the year.