Unlikely relationships often make for a compelling narrative. When two or more people with no seeming overlap in interests or backgrounds come together, it often illuminates an intriguing part of the characters of those involved. "Starlet" features one such relationship: the aimless, 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway) and the cranky, 85-year-old Sadie (Besedka Johnson). Most critics agree that the dynamic between the two is compelling enough, but their estimation of the effectiveness of the rest of "Starlet," the third full-length offering from writer/director Sean Baker, is more mixed.
[Disclaimer: This capsule contains links to discussion of elements of the film that some critics have considered a spoiler. If you want to remain completely unaffected by advance notice, beware when clicking on links.]
A lack of focus is giving some critics pause, including Indiewire's Eric Kohn. Even though Kohn's review of the film was positive, he does concede that "the watchable narrative occasionally casts too wide a net." What redeems "Starlet" for Kohn is that the film "contains enough provocative subtext to deliver on its themes about the challenges of communication. Unlike Baker's previous efforts, the movie never makes obvious its trajectory, instead wandering through a series of events in search of a revelation much like Jane herself."
However, Kate Erbland at FilmSchoolRejects argues that it's Hemingway who transcends the surrounding film elements. She says that Hemingway brings real world pathos to the moments when she's given direction, but those scenes with Jane are "exceedingly better than the portions of the film where is she clearly under less direction and has been asked to improvise her words and responses (which, unfortunately, make up the majority of the production)…despite some inspired moments, it too feels unshaded and forgettable."
For some critics, a discussion of the overall narrative would be incomplete without a relevant character detail revealed later in the film. Before analyzing that extra element, The Movable Fest's Stephen Saito writes that "the third feature from Sean Baker ("Prince of Broadway") [is] a well-crafted, if a tad too long, and emotionally acute film about the delicate friendship that develops between two women – one 20, one 85 – who are dealing with loneliness in the San Fernando Valley in different ways."
Instant Twitterverse Reaction:
"Sean Baker's "Starlet" is beautifully directed, acted tale of private friendships in San Fernando Valley. Amazing debut for Dree Hemingway… also amazing debut for 85-yr old Besedka Johnson, discovered at a gym by exec producer, asked to audition." – Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker Magazine
"Suffice it to say that I did not care for the film. At all." – David Ehlrich, Movies.com, Box Office Magazine
"Sean Baker is three for three. What a penetrating motion picture." – Hammer to Nail
"STARLET is proof positive that you can make a really heartfelt film with [SPOILER] as a subplot." – Erik Childress, eFilmCritic.com