“For Mature Audiences Only”, announces the movie poster to Starlet, director Sean Baker’s sweet, yet unsentimental film about friendship and stardom.
It’s a wordplay: Starlet recounts the friendship between 20-ish Jane, aka Tess, an actress on the cusp of achieving minor celebrity status, and Sadie, an 85-year-old bingo-addicted widow. The two meet at Sadie’s San Fernando Valley home when Jane buys a Thermos at Sadie’s yard sale, which the younger woman tries to return when she learns that it hides thousands of dollars. Sadie’s rudeness prevents Jane from disclosing her discovery and Jane decides to worm her way into Sadie’s life (while she freely and generously spends her cash windfall).
We watch the senior slowly take to Jane, with several setbacks that illustrate Sadie’s wariness and vulnerability, and Jane’s impatience. All the while we wait for Sadie’s inevitable discovery of what was in the thermos. That revelation arrives late in the film, when Starlet’s other plot—Jane’s life with her drug-addled, high-strung roommate Melissa and Melissa’s small-time hustler boyfriend Mikey—intertwines with the main plot.
Jane’s single-minded pursuit of Sadie belies an inner drive that will help her keep the handlers and hangers-on in her life at bay. We feel somehow that whatever twists await her, she’ll end up in command.
Her Chihuahua, a male named Starlet, acts as the spirit animal of the film: loyal and mellow, the dog spends a good bit of the movie draped on Jane’s shoulder or sleeping in her room or car. Nevertheless, he provides essential plot development, and represents the film’s essential mechanism of misdirection. Starlet the dog signals the oblique nature of the revelations that mark the growth of Jane and Sadie’s friendship, and the disintegration of Jane’s relationship with Melissa.
Dree Hemingway plays the happy-go-lucky, but grounded Jane with an engaging nonchalance. Hemingway is the daughter of Mariel Hemingway—who played a starlet herself in the dramatization of the short life and gruesome death of playmate Dorothy Stratten (Star 80)—and shares her mother’s wholesome good looks. We learn in an interview among the DVD extras that she got the role after a Skype session with Baker, and you can see why he cast her without meeting her face-to-face.
Starlet provides a much more hopeful glimpse of a young woman cashing in on her looks in California than Star 80. While she plies the same waters, Jane finds more control and a greater range of options than did the unlucky Stratton 30 years earlier.
First-time actor Besedka Johnson plays Sadie with humor, charm, and spirit. Johnson, who died in April after thoroughly enjoying her brief time in the limelight as a result of this role, brings a freshness and sense of discovery that enhances her portrayal of a woman warming from a decades-long depression by an unexpected friendship.
Melissa is deftly played by Stella Maeve; her alternate effusions of affection for and explosions of aggression against Jane ring true, and their ultimately one-sided relationship provides an instructive counterpoint to Jane’s growing, mutual connection with Sadie. Melissa senses the difference, too, and lashes out accordingly.
Mikey (James Ransone) is another story. He builds Melissa and Jane their very own stripper pole in the living room, and wonders why they don’t appreciate his efforts. I have no doubt that such caricatures exist in life, but that’s no reason to put them in a movie whose main characters are so fully and believably wrought.
Baker (who also edited and co-wrote the film) and DP Radium Cheung—using 50-year-old Russian anamorphic lenses and a combination of hand-held and fixed shots—capture well the vacant incandescence of the Valley and the languor of Jane’s casual existence. It’s the perfect mise for a story whose latent volatility simmers but never comes to a boil. For all the conventionality of the found-money device that starts, and keeps, the story rolling, Starlet remains a tale of character, not plot.
Baker discusses his oblique approach to exposition in the film in an interview among the DVD extras. Saving fundamental revelations until well into the film, he says, suspends the audience’s judgment until they’ve had a chance to get to know characters and to value certain of their essential aspects. It’s a pragmatic and generous view of humanity and the film-going public. In the land of make-believe and perpetual reinvention, where even dogs can have alter egos, jobs don’t define you, mistakes can be overcome, and it’s never too late to reestablish trust.
Extras include a making-of featurette, Johnson’s screen test, and several interviews that establish the perseverance, resourcefulness, near obsession, and luck that characterize successful independent filmmaking.