Sean Baker works in the margins, writing and directing movies about people on the tattered fringes of the social fabric. In his 2015 breakout, Tangerine, it was transgender sex workers flitting around the alleys of West Hollywood. His 2017 mainstream breakthrough, The Florida Project, shone a light on the “hidden homeless” huddled inside the cheap motels that dot the outskirts of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. For his latest—the darkly funny, deeply uncomfortable Red Rocket—Baker brings that eye for pockmarked detail to the Gulf Coast town of Texas City, where the indifferent, industrial churn of the self-proclaimed “All-America City” proves a fitting backdrop for exploring the oily underbelly of modern capitalism. 

“Instead of a town with a refinery, it felt like a refinery with a town,” Baker says of his initial attraction to Texas City as a setting. It’s a distinction that colors how Baker sees the characters who live there and how the film’s audience comes to understand the desperate, often despicable choices they make. Red Rocket occasionally feels as ugly and suffocating as its surroundings. Here sulfuric skies crisscrossed by refinery pipes loom over rathole houses with peeling vinyl siding and ragweed-choked yards; it’s a place where the “hard hats” come off of their shifts “looking like they want to kill themselves,” as one character cheerfully observes. But the dreariness is leavened by the people—many of them played by locals that Baker cast from the street—whose scrappy, vividly realized personalities shine through it all, like an oil derrick bathed in Baker’s preferred golden-hour sunlight. 

None is more vibrant—or overpowering—than the film’s unstable center, Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a fallen adult-film star who slinks back to his hometown some twenty years after he burned several bridges on the way out. When Mikey turns up on the doorstep of his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), neither wants anything to do with him. But Mikey quickly proves himself to be a virtuosic wheedler. He begs and berates his way back into Lexi’s life with promises to sleep on the couch and pitch in on the rent. And while his steamrolling ways fail to land him honest work—employers are, understandably, none too excited about hiring a Google-able porn star—he is able to sweet-talk the backyard drug maven Leondria (Judy Hill) into giving him back his old high school gig of slinging weed, over the objections of Leondria’s unimpressed daughter, June (Brittney Rodriguez). 

Mikey also cajoles the kid next door, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), into chauffeuring him around, enchanting Lonnie with tales of his XXX exploits and his bloviations about how he’ll get back on top. Soon Mikey’s also putting those unctuous moves on Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the barely legal high school ingenue Mikey finds working at the local Donut Hole. In Strawberry, Mikey sees a future porn star in the making, convinced that she’s his ticket back to a life of Hollywood parties and Adult Video News Awards. As Mikey’s manipulations turn increasingly selfish, even borderline sociopathic, the film builds tension through the accruing consequences of Mikey’s perversely idiotic decisions, but mostly it languishes in the slow burn of his self-destruction.

This is fairly grim subject matter for what is, ostensibly, a comedy. Mikey’s pursuit of Strawberry isn’t just sleazy or gross. It’s a form of grooming, and some viewers, by the director’s own admission, will definitely find themselves unable to get past Mikey’s turn from raffish horn ball to full-blown sexual predator. This is complicated by the fact that, unlike in Tangerine or The Florida Project, there’s no social messaging at play—no obvious someone or something to blame. “That’s been some of the criticism, that it’s not doing what the other films did in terms of tackling an issue,” Baker says. “Also, people don’t think it’s as emotionally moving or whatever.” Baker adds with a laugh, “I’m like, okay, there’s not a six-year old crying at the end of it. It’s hard to reach that again.”

Red Rocket is instead a very adult sort of story—a character study that’s steeped in moral ambiguities, sidestepping easy judgment. Strawberry is clearly young and impressionable, but she’s not totally naive. For all of Mikey’s manipulations, she has agency over her own life. She’s a smart and talented girl who seems to float above her station; you can see why she’d be seduced by some charismatic stranger promising to whisk her away from all this. And while Mikey’s definitely not the kind of guy you’d want hanging around your daughter or crashing on your couch, he’s also a natural-born people pleaser, with a hustler’s brio that makes him impossible to hate. Much of his uneasy likability can be attributed to Rex—himself a former fringe celebrity (and dabbler in porn)—who imbues Mikey with a shabby, frenetic charm. Mikey’s the sort of doggedly optimistic loser who’s forever insisting he’s “blessed,” even as the world lines up to beat the crap out of him, and this makes him easy to root for—and occasionally pity—in spite of yourself. “I do see [Mikey] as a survivor, someone who got into this line of work because it’s his way out of poverty,” Baker says. “So I have to empathize with him on that level.” 

The film often emphasizes this point by making Texas City seem like a “dead-end s— hole,” as Mikey puts it, the sort of place where pickups stacked with rotting mattresses are left to rot on people’s front lawns. Baker says he was also drawn to the Gulf Coast’s troubled past: during our talk, he mentions the industrial explosion of 1947, the Galveston hurricane in 1900, the “killing fields” off of Interstate 45, and the slave-trading post in San Leon—all comprising a dark history that Baker sees as thematically entwined with his characters’ grappling with their own pasts. The threats of violence and disaster seem both imminent and tacitly accepted; the languorous peace is interrupted by the blare of the Emergency Broadcast System, cycling through its daily test. Everyone seems irrevocably yet impassively trapped beneath those smokestacks belching their purgatorial fire. 

“It definitely is this ominous, lurking presence that’s there at all times, and they’re living in the shadow of it,” Baker says. “When I was driving through [Texas City], it did feel like a certain slice of hell. It really did. But at the same time, these are some people’s livelihoods. My approach to it has to be sensitive.” 

Some will surely question whether he succeeded. After all, Baker has been accused in the past of making “poverty porn.” As he acknowledges in our interview, he also hails from “two extremely blue cities that love to slam Texas.” Red Rocket is made with Baker’s loving, typically immersive eye for local specifics, right down to the familiar Stripes cups its characters tote around. Deiss, Darbone, and Rodriguez are all natives of the area, and Baker credits them as “consultants” on getting these details right. Still, there is an inherent whiff of exploitation to some LA dweller blowing into Texas City, then using it to stage a jaundiced take on the American dream. 

This suspicion likely will only be intensified by the fact that Red Rocket is, superficially at least, Baker’s most political film yet. The story unfolds against the backdrop of the 2016 election, with Baker intermingling clips of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz that the movie’s characters absorb as dispassionately as any other reality TV show. As several critics have noted, there are some unsubtle parallels to be drawn between Trump and Mikey, the proudly “all-American” huckster who uses everyone around him for personal gain and (in a rather on-the-nose metaphor) sells joints wrapped in the stars-and-stripes to the blue-collar locals. The film insinuates—if never quite lands—a connection to our current political moment, so it would be easy to come away from Red Rocket feeling as though Baker is sneering down at MAGA country, suggesting that the kind of desperation to be found here has made people more susceptible to self-delusion and scheming grifters.  

But again, Baker isn’t interested in condemning or preaching. He’s out to make us connect, sometimes against our will, to the kinds of people the movies tend to turn away from. And within their seeming desolation, Red Rocket finds poetry and ragged beauty too. At night, those same refineries glow like earthbound constellations. As Mikey ambles through town atop a bicycle (whose Urban Dictionary–baiting name also lends the film its title), all that industrial waste renders the sunsets into gorgeous shades of sherbet. Mikey might scrape and scrabble just to escape this place, but it’s clear that the filmmakers recognize there’s a freewheeling freedom to be found here—one that feels distinctly Texan. 

After all, the characters whom Mikey uses and burns aren’t looking for money or fame, but rather some form of contentment. Their version of that fabled American dream, which has so corrupted Mikey, is sharing some beer and barbecue with their neighbors, and generally being left the hell alone. In one particularly poignant scene, Mikey and Lexi gaze at the smokestacks from their yard, and Lexi affectionately points one out, saying, “Mom calls that one Old Smokey.” It’s a small, throwaway line—one Elrod improvised herself, Baker says. Yet it sums up everything Red Rocket has to say about the people here along America’s edges, and the pockets of happiness and humanity they have found, despite those who have tried to exploit them.