Since it would be hard for me to say what I appreciated about "Starlet" without discussing a major spoiler, let me put it simply upfront that I thought the third feature from Sean Baker ("Prince of Broadway") was 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. But to explain why it's not anywhere near as saccharine as that synopsis makes it sound necessitates the reveal of a key plot point, so you've been forewarned and in fact, it is far better to see the film unaware of this.
"Starlet" in conception and in some ways execution operates almost as if it were a full-length version of the scene in "Fight Club" where Brad Pitt splices in a crotch shot into a children's film as a projectionist, leaving those who know what they saw a bit dazed as the film proceeds with everything subsequently viewed through that prism. The analogy is particularly apt since the centerpiece of "Starlet" shows flashes of hardcore pornography, oral sex and penetration performed by real pornstars Manuel Ferrara and Zoe Voss, who serves as a body double for Dree Hemingway’s Jane, the film's lead character. While there are hints throughout that she's an adult performer, there's no actual confirmation until she's led into a dressing room on a set.
The scene is jarring not because of the actual act of sex, which in the Internet age shouldn't be shocking, but rather because it's such a departure from what's come before. Jane doesn't have any companionship, except for her roommates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone), who rely upon her for rent and with whom she shares joints with and the occasional video game. She's a layabout, but not entirely carefree – when she goes out to pick up some decorations for her spare apartment, she buys what she believes to be a stylish urn from an old woman (Besedka Johnson) who believes it's a Thermos. Jane knows she's mistaken, but is surprised herself when she finds about $10,000 inside.
The mere fact that Jane is conflicted about returning the cash at all would seem to separate her from other pornstars to go by preconceptions, but wisely Baker doesn't give Hemingway that baggage to carry until later. Instead, any conclusions about her come by honestly without her work to define her. In place of the lurid thoughts one might have (and still possibly have as she and her roomie waste the day away in panties and belly-bearing tees), the film opens up the possibility of a cross-generational friendship when Hemingway decides that instead of returning the cash to the woman, who at first won't accept any entreaties, she'll help her out with errands and pay her back over time.
The relationship between Hemingway and Johnson would make a decent film without ever knowing the former's profession, as the push-pull relationship is enjoyably rickety, with Jane showing up at Sadie’s bingo games and bribing her usual drivers to the supermarket to leave so she can start repaying her debt. Still, it's a story that's undeniably small, so when Baker throws down his central narrative gambit, it sends ripples through both the first half and second, realizing the rare opportunity to add dimension to a character while illuminating what she's purposefully missing from her life.
Of course, this grand opportunity comes with a massive consequence, which is that without editing, it is unlikely "Starlet" will make it far beyond the festival circuit, at least on the big screen where the sun-dappled cinematography from Radium Cheung can best be appreciated. While lead Hemingway comes from the famed lineage, has legs for days and delivers an unaffected performance that suggests bigger things are in store for her future, she's not currently enjoying the meteoric rise of Michael Fassbender and "Starlet," ironically, doesn't have the sex appeal of "Shame" to sell to a major distributor. In fact, it's just the opposite of that film in taking a nonjudgmental look at a person who's turned it into unemotional routine, separating herself from others by making mundane the one thing that isn't for others. For Jane, it's what's considered by others to be mundane that's interesting and Baker brings that out beautifully.
"Starlet" does not yet have U.S. distribution. It plays once more at SXSW on March 15th at 6:30 p.m. at the Alamo Lamar C.