On paper, the central relationship at the heart of Sean Baker's new film, Starlet—the life-changing one between a vibrant young woman and a cantankerous older lady—has the potential to be as sentimental and saccharine as any Lifetime movie. There's much more to this movie, however, and it's to Baker's credit that he takes these two women from different generations and lifestyles and makes what they have feel real and alive. Even the explanation as to why they're friends makes sense; there's a core to their relationship that starts out rotten, yet it somehow manages to ripen into something sweet.
Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel, plays Jane, a gorgeous San Fernando Valley girl prone to short shorts and selfishness. She recently moved in with her friend Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Melissa's boyfriend Mikey (James Ransone, known to fans of David Simon's shows The Wire and Treme), both of whom seem to do little more than smoke weed and play video games all day. It's kind of shady, but Jane's doing her best to make the most of it, decorating her room with purchases at a slew of yard sales. It's at one of these that she first encounters Sadie (Besedka Johnson), a cranky old woman who seems genuinely upset that Jane might use the thermos she purchases as a vase rather than for its intended use. Jane takes it home and opens it up, only to discover that it's stuffed full of money.
Now, here's what you need to know about Jane. She's absolutely devoted to her dog, Starlet. She's not arrogant, but she's self-involved. She's not greedy, but the money helps. And though she's bright enough to know that she's facing an ethical quandary, she doesn't have enough life experience to thoroughly consider the consequences of her actions.
All of this makes for a great performance from Hemingway, whose character ends up sort of stalking Sadie. No, not to get any more of her money, but to find out what's up with her and to possibly assuage some of her guilt. Out of that comes a real friendship that has bits of co-dependency, but it also provides something that both women need that is very hard to put into words.
Baker's stock in trade has always been naturalistic performances—I greatly enjoyed his last feature, Take Out, about a Chinese immigrant desperate to make enough money over the course of a day to pay off the debt he owes to human smugglers—and what he gets out of these two women is both lovely and disturbing.
I know, that still sounds very Lifetime. But Starlet is unrated for a reason—it's a film entirely for adults, and there's some seriously graphic sexual content. By the time you learn what Jane does for a living— no, she's not a hooker—you probably won't be very surprised, but you'll be shocked at how far Baker takes one particular sequence. Sadie's history is a mystery, too, but when you learn what's at her center, you probably will be surprised, but you'll likely be heartbroken, too. Neither of these are twists; they're simple plot points that allow each woman to further develop her character.
Most of the attention directed at Starlet will be given to Hemingway, but Maeve and Ransone earn many of the film's laughs, tragic and toxic though their relationship may be. And it's worth noting that Johnson, who's simply fantastic as Sadie, has never acted professionally before. The filmmakers discovered her at a YMCA and gave her a shot, which is the kind of thing you hear about happening to younger women rather than octogenarians.
And that's one of the great things about Starlet— which runs for one week only at the Ken Cinema starting on Friday, Dec. 7: It takes characters and a relationship you expect to understand and offers up something completely different.
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