With his first two features, Sean Baker established his interest in immigrant stories shot in naturalistic fashion. This, from a man also credited with creating the adult puppet show "Greg the Bunny." It's an unlikely second career that may help explain his ability to inject entertainment value into generally downbeat stories. His latest effort, "Starlet," ventures beyond that terrain both in setting and style with a smart but notably less ambitious attempt.
Focused on a pair of women in California's San Fernando Valley, "Starlet" lacks the same emotional consistency of Baker's earlier films, but nevertheless succeeds as a compelling look at the vapidity of day-to-day life and the universal desire to escape it.
The story revolves around 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway), a sleepy-eyed stoner who wastes her days hanging with her roommates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone). Driving around town with her requisite Chihuahua — whose name provides the movie's title — Jane looks like a walking stereotype of American laziness. Her seedy profession, revealed at the beginning of the second act, only furthers this perception. (It shouldn't be a spoiler to mention it, but Baker positions it as such.) Although the details behind her arrival in L.A. never come up, it's clear that Jane has erected a mental wall preventing her from making progress in life.
Hemingway brings enough vulnerability to the character to make her an intriguing subject, but Baker has broader aims. After nabbing a random vase at a neighboring garage sale, Jane faces a Talmudic conundrum when she discovers that it was filled with $10,000. Does she return the money or not? She tracks down the owner, reclusive 85-year-old widow Sadie (Besedka Johnson). Without revealing her intentions, Jane falls into a curiously supportive relationship with Sadie.
At first confused by Jane's advances, the dyspeptic Sadie eventually allows the younger woman into her life. The formula for an unlikely buddy movie slowly takes shape, underscoring Baker's ability to apply familiar genre tropes to unconventional situations. Their scenes together are alternately funny and sad juxtapositions of women suffering from the challenges of age at different ends of the spectrum.
The watchable narrative occasionally casts too wide a net. By the time Jane's profession is made clear, her odd bond with Sadie has already taken shape and the movie bounces between those two worlds without any clear means of drawing them together. Still, the overall sensitivity to both lives allows "Starlet" a perceptive edge. Cinematographer Radium Cheung's bright, sun-soaked images effectively contrast the blandness of the environment with the lonely sentiments both women internalize for reasons they don't know how to express.
But that's only one part of the movie. The other merely involves Jane's bored existence, which mainly finds her sitting around at home with her destructive roommates smoking pot and playing video games, regularly bitching about their employment problems. (In this regard she calls to mind another bored L.A. blondie of recent movie memory, also named Jane: The amusingly confounded pothead played by Anna Faris in Gregg Araki's "Smiley Face.") Using the same anthropological approach he brought to his previous films, Baker inhabits Jane's lifestyle by stripping away its glamorous elements to peer at the reality beneath.
"Starlet" 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. The story retains an inscrutable tone that sometimes makes its emotional qualities feel remote, but it still delivers a powerful message about the challenge of self-diagnosis by rooting it in universal experience: Both women have reasons for keeping their baggage private. The only character with an obvious agenda is the titular dog.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Warmly received at SXSW, "Starlet" stands a chance at landing a healthy home with a midsize distributor such as IFC or Magnolia that could drum up critical appraisal for a limited theatrical release. Hemingway's breakthrough performance should also help elevate its profile.