Though named after a party girl’s pet Chihuahua, “Starlet” could just as easily describe the two exceptional first-timers making their debuts in this brittle, beautifully understated San Fernando Valley character study: Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel, and 85-year-old co-star Besedka Johnson, whom a producer discovered at the West Hollywood YMCA. Hemingway plays a disengaged blonde with little to occupy her afternoons until she decides to make a project of the contrary old widow she meets at a yard sale. This SXSW competition entry has a bright fest future ahead, although a single explicit scene spells ratings trouble in the U.S.
Coming off strong reviews for his Gotham-set “Prince of Broadway,” writer-director Sean Baker jumps coasts, burrowing into the strange suburban scene found just north of the Hollywood Hills. Here, lost souls with dreams of stardom coexist with all-American squares oblivious to the drug deals and porn shoots happening just down the block. Over the years, many have satirized this sun-stricken cultural crossroads, where people with good, old-fashioned values mix with those who appear to have none. Baker encourages auds to identify with his characters for 45 minutes before revealing what they do for a living.
As spoilers go, it will be hard for the film’s eventual distributor to keep a lid on the fact that Hemingway’s character, a 21-year-old Florida transplant named Jane, is breaking into the porn biz. Bemused but never judgmental, Baker treats this polarizing line of work as a legitimate life choice, bringing the same verite approach to one of Jane’s shoots that he uses to film her sleeping, shopping and otherwise passing her free time.
Although attitudes have changed considerably in the 29 years since Hemingway’s mother made “Star 80,” one can’t help but think of the scandal Mariel endured for playing a Playboy model (and that film didn’t include a scene of oncamera penetration tipping it into NC-17 territory). For better or worse, Baker lacks Bob Fosse’s career-end cynicism, as evidenced by the fact that his stereotype-bending glimpse at the adult-movie world takes the form of an affectionate cross-generational friendship.
The film opens on the blank yellow walls of an unfurnished bedroom. Blonde hair tosses into the frame as Jane stirs. The sun has been up for hours, bathing everything in luminous pastels, but Jane’s day is wide open. Downstairs, her roommates (Stella Maeve and James Ransone) behave like selfish kids, playing videogames and selling pot. Bored, Jane decides to take Starlet out for a tour of neighborhood yard sales, the film spying as Hemingway rummage-hunts in character.
As lensed by d.p. Radium Cheung, these early scenes are casually observational and far too airy to feel like exposition, and it’s not until Jane gets home and starts to clean one of the afternoon’s treasures that an earlier exchange with a prickly old lady, Sadie (Johnson), gains significance. Hidden inside a tall Thermos are rolls of hundred-dollar bills, nearly $10,000 in all.
Jane does what any girl might, going on a shopping spree that includes an extravagant manicure and a new rhinestone collar for Starlet, before the moral implications of her discovery set in. Still undecided about whether to return the money, Jane finds her way back to the house where she bought the Thermos. “No refunds!” the flustered woman repeats as Jane stands awkwardly on her overgrown front porch, looking completely out of place in her slutty-chic shorts.
Though Sadie is understandably suspicious of the young stranger’s motives, Jane is guileless — and persistent enough in her attempts to assist the old woman that an unlikely friendship emerges. Whether spent running errands or playing bingo, their time together provides a welcome distraction from the pettiness Jane faces back at the apartment — and a possible substitute for the mother to whom she barely speaks.
Jane’s job demands that she numb her emotions to the degree that she seems oblivious to the lyrics of the hardcore rap music playing in her car, coasting by in a state more in tune with the electronic lull of Manual’s score. Though the potential to psychoanalyze the characters exists, the film’s approach is far more conducive to straightforward identification. Here, so much depends on Hemingway, who lures the viewer into the naive, girlish daze through which Jane sees the world.
Cheung often shoots in shallow focus and tight frames, desaturating the image in post to look rosy and soft (the footage has been color-timed so even the nighttime scenes glow pink and purple). “Starlet” doesn’t glamorize so much as block out everything Jane doesn’t want to see, ultimately arriving at an emotional awakening for which she wasn’t prepared.