After The Florida Project wowed me even more than Tangerine did two years ago (I liked that one a lot, too), I decided to check out what else Sean Baker has done. I didn’t know about Starlet. Written by Baker with frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch, it’s the first of three from them so far. It came out before Tangerine, so it seemed like a good place to start. I’m happy to report that Starlet is another winner.
In Starlet, Baker and Bergoch explore morality and female bonding in the context of a cross generational relationship. Jane (Dree Hemingway) is a nihilistic or simply oblivious 21-year-old aspiring actress who just moved to the Valley — the one on the other side of the hills from Hollywood — with her unnamed chihuahua (Boonee). She’s kind of a slacker, spending her days not unpacking her shit but getting high and playing video games with her housemates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone), a young couple not exactly in tune with each other. They let her stay with them in an extra bedroom that Mikey occasionally uses for “work.”
Jane is likable: she’s got a lot of idiosyncrasies but she isn’t helpless, she takes care of her pooch, and she seems like a nice person despite her aimlessness, lack of planning (like, anything), and the questionable career path she’s chosen to get her foot in the door of the film industry. I’m not spoiling anything when I reveal that she makes porn under her stage name Tess. One name, like Cher or Madonna (or Prince, for that matter). A few real life porn actors (Manuel Ferrara, Asa Akira, Jules Jordan, Kristina Rose) even appear as themselves.
Jane hits a yard sale at the home of crusty old lady Sadie (Besedka Johnson), who can barely be bothered to answer Jane’s questions about a thermos she spots and wants to buy (she thinks it’s an urn). Jane takes it home and is befuddled when she finds multiple rolls of cash stashed inside it.
Jane tries to return the money — after she spends some of it on a blingy harness for the dog (incidentally, it says “starlet,” which becomes his name). The problem is, Sadie doesn’t give her a chance; she won’t even let Jane talk, dismissing her with a “no returns” shutdown. So, Jane does what any reasonable person would: she stalks Sadie at the grocery store, in the diner, in her garden, and at her bingo games to become her friend and spend the money on her.
Starlet is unique in its pace and its narrative, perhaps even moreso than Tangerine or The Florida Project. It’s offbeat yet warm, and it beautifully captures the tempo of real life: mostly mundane stretches peppered with moments of excitement. Both Hemingway (yes, her great grandfather was the notable author) and Johnson in her only role are both mesmerizing. Radium Cheung’s cinematography is gorgeous; all sunbleached and perfectly framed, it gives Starlet a sunny hue that belies its melancholic sense that this is as good as it gets for these characters, not that anything — fame, fortune, love, a pornstar sex life, retirement, Hollywood itself — is as thrilling as the fantasy.
Starlet lacks the impact of the aformentioned films that follow it — the big reveal at the end is a bit of a dud. However, its real surprise is how damned sweet it is. Hemingway and Johnson interacting with each other are a joy to watch. My big question: what’s in the suitcase?
With Zoe Voss, Krystle Alexander, Jessica Pak, Jackie J. Lee, Dean Andre, Dawn Bianchini, Edmund C. Pokrzywnicki, Dave Bean, Eliezer Ortiz, Andy Mardiroson, Cesar Garcia, Heather Wang, Helen Yeotis, Dale Tanguay, Patrick Cunningham, Karren Karagulian, Michael O’Hagan, Amin Joseph, Cammeron Ellis, Nick Santoro, Joey Rubina, Cassandra Nix, Liz Beebe, Tracey Sweet
Production: Maybach Cunningham, Freestyle Picture Company, Cre Film, Mangusta Productions
Distribution: Music Box Films (USA), Golden Scene (Hong Kong), Rapid Eye Movies (Germany), Tucuman Filmes (Brazil)
(iTunes rental) B