Sean Baker’s film “Starlet” wants to play a little trick on you. It’s a fun trick, and it might be more enjoyable figuring it out on your own, but it’s the most important and interesting part of the movie, so it’s hard to talk about its merits without giving it away. In fact, the main crux of the film isn’t interesting enough without the drama of the environment, the truth of which is slowly revealed throughout the first half of the film. You may be able to figure it out within the first sequence, but the fun is in how the film tells you what’s up.
"Starlet" centers on Jane, a young, listless woman who doesn’t really have any meaningful connections in her life until she discovers that a thermos she bought at a yard sale is filled with a stash of money. She tries to get to know the elderly woman who sold her the thermos, and ends up befriending the curmudgeonly Sadie. First it’s for selfish reasons, but she’s clearly starved for real human contact, and forces her companionship upon her. Jane’s roommate Melissa and her boyfriend Mikey (played by the electric James Ransone, who needs to be in everything) are consistently high on pot and oxy, drawing Jane into their fights, and you can see why Sadie is a relief for her from the madness. She exists in a state of non-identity, with her ill-fitting clothes and seems too smart to be performing a dumb blonde routine that doesn’t really fit. The trip to the yard sale to personalize her room is the only thing that really signifies who she might be, through the items that she picks to make the place her own.
However, dumb blonde act soon becomes relevant because SPOILERS AHEAD as we come to realize, indicated by little clues littered throughout (and um, the title), Jane and Melissa are in porn. They live in the Valley and exist almost entirely within the porn industrial context located there. The film has a lo-fi, handheld aesthetic, and it treats porn in the mundane, de-glamorized way that “The Wrestler” or “Black Swan” treated wrestling and ballet. Mumbleporn, if you will?
Dree Hemingway (yeah, of those Hemingways) plays Jane, and she brings a nice balance of naivete and sensitivity to the role of a young girl who is confused and lacking in identity, but also headstrong and bold in her own way. One problem is that with her icy blonde looks and lithe, willowy body, she appears more suited to stalking the runways as a high fashion model than performing as a contract star for a low rent porn company. However, this unassuming nature works for her, as the character does have an underlying intelligence and instinct in the choices that she makes. Her counterpart in Sadie, is played by Besedka Johnson, who makes her acting debut in this film, and is equal parts heartbreaking, lovely and inspiring in her performance. Another standout performance is Stella Maeve as Melissa, who does "stoned starlet" to perfection. She is infinitely more convincing than Hemingway as a strung out porn actress in the Valley, but maybe that’s the point.
The narrative is a bit slow moving throughout the first third, and its loose structure sometimes allows the story to sag a bit, to its detriment. It does have enough drama of miscommunication, secrets kept, and revelations throughout to keep it moving, but it feels a tad long towards the end. Still, “Starlet” is an interesting effort from indie filmmaker Sean Baker (this is his fourth feature), and signals the arrival of Dree Hemingway as one to watch. [B]