With its stylistic intimacy, tightly controlled narrative, and intriguing characterization, Starlet combines some of the best elements of independent drama without succumbing to the missteps so often seen in low-budget films from young, inexperienced filmmakers.
That could be because this is director Sean Baker’s fourth feature, after an impressive double bill a couple of years ago with Take Out and The Prince Of Broadway. Fans of low-budget indie know of Baker, but more people need to, and this latest could help achieve that, especially as it’s his most accessible film to date, due both to its minimalistic style and its eye-catching subject.
That subject is an intergenerational friendship forged between two unlikely gals; one is Jane, a naturally sexy blonde who’s getting her jumpstart in the porn industry, and the other is Sadie, a curmudgeonly octogenarian who sells a tacky thermos to the young starlet at a garage sale. When Jane discovers ten-thousand dollars stashed in the thermos, she debates returning the money, but Sadie will have nothing to do with her. Perhaps out of guilt, or perhaps mere curiosity, Jane begins to stalk Sadie and forces a relationship with the elder that blossoms despite the secrets each hold.
Baker and cowriter Chris Bergoch explore the lives of porn stars in the San Fernando Valley as we follow Jane and her cohorts through their days off-set, which is surprisingly dull and lazy. But Baker never makes that exploration dull or lazy, and that may be due to actress Dree Hemingway, who is raw and exposed here, even with her clothes on. Wandering around with her bedazzled chihuahua, Hemingway portrays Jane as a ditzy Barbie doll who hides an exhaustion for her go-nowhere life and a loneliness that leads to faulty relationships. It’s less likely due to guilt and more likely due to that loneliness that has Jane pursue Sadie so intently. But there is a kinship between the two that could be attributed to Sadie’s own loneliness. Portrayed by first time actress Besedka Johnson, Sadie hides her own past that dramatically shapes her own character, and only through a difficult odyssey of trust and companionship do we begin to understand who Sadie is and what this relationship to Jane means.
Starlet is an overly gratuitous film, both in its depiction of sex and in its lengthy character study that feels a bit repetitive towards the end of the film. For the most part, though, this is a simply wonderful film that is subtle but not vague, thoughtful but not meditative. Nicely photographed by Radium Cheung (Baker, who shot his own previous films, works well here with a collaborator) using handheld camera (and on celluloid, no less!), it’s a classic vérité-styled film but one that walks the balance-beam between overt realism and inventive story. It solidly proves Sean Baker is a formidable filmmaker and one who demands more attention.