In the department of gems to discover, “Starlet,” by Sean Baker.
Once in a while we’re lucky enough to come upon an excellent film that had somehow slid under our radar screen. I’m thinking “Tiny Furniture,” showered with awards at indie film festivals, written about, lauded but attracting only a small audience. As a writer, I was green with envy when I finally saw it. How can an author be so smart, so hip, so original, in a context done to death? (Rich white kids between college and first jobs, scrounging off parents, still young enough to be obnoxious before they turn into the steely judges of later years).
I, too, like writing about well-off white people living in large cities in the Western hemisphere but every so often I gasp at my own clichés and have to hit the delete key.
In this other film, the 2012 “Starlet,” which filled me with absolute delight, again, same context. Vapid kids share an apartment in the Valley, snort and smoke, play video games, act in porn films. Luminous Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel and great-grand-daughter of Papa, is an outstanding performer. What shines through, in her depiction of the Jane character, is how unscathed she is by the aimless life she leads. Tired of living out of a suitcase, she hits the yard sales in the area for stuff to use in redecorating.
One old woman standing on a porch where she’s almost lost amid the rambling vegetation sells her a thermos, for pennies, warning, “no returns.” Back home, Jane fills with water the thermos she wants to use as a vase for a meager bouquet but the stems won’t go in. The thermos is in fact filled with rolls and rolls of large bills. She dries out the bills, hides them from her untrustworthy housemates and treks back to see the old woman, more curious about the situation than intent on returning the money.
Sadie (superbly played by Besedka Johnson who makes here her screen debut and sadly died soon after) is 85 and a widow whose house and yard are fire and pest hazards. The only social interaction she has had since her gambler husband died decades ago is bingo night on Saturdays. She doesn’t want to have anything to do with the pesky young woman. But Jane won’t give up. Between blue movie shoots (warning to prudes, the brief sex scenes are explicit) and heated discussions with her housemates, she practically stalks Sadie, always with her sidekick, Starlet, a male chihuahua stuck with the name since Jane had decided on it before going to pick up the dog at the shelter.
Loner Sadie can see that Jane is a good person and, at first grudgingly, takes to the young woman, allowing her to drive her around to the grocery store and to the bingo parlor and even to visit. Other things happen—a porn fair, a side story with the housemates, visits to the cemetery—that Sean Baker describes in a casual, offhanded way, not getting into motivations or consequences. “Starlet” is as pitch-perfect visually as in performances. The washed-out, sunlit, unspectacular scenes, just the right background for the acting that reaches excellence through sparse, gimmick–free performances, makes for a greatly satisfying experience.