People have pre-conceptions of most everything, especially when it comes to infamous cities like Los Angeles and infamous industries like porn, But Sean Baker’s new film Starlet is set on changing those conceptions. Perhaps Hollywood isn’t what it seems.
The film follows its leading lady Jane (Dree Hemingway) and her canine partner in crime, Starlet, through the hum-drum of LA life. Jane’s new to the city and living with her stoner roommates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransome). She wakes in the morning to whitewashed walls, unpacked suitcases and an itch to re-decorate. The place is painfully stark.
Jane hits up some garage sales in the city, wandering around in barely-there booty shorts with Starlet, looking straight out of an Urban Outfitters catalog. At one sale, she finds a vase, or as the grumpy old lady on her porch insists, “It’s a thermos!” Whatever it is, Jane is sure it’ll be perfect for flowers.
Little did she expect the thermos/vase would have $10,000 bucks stashed in the bottom. Jane: 1, Grump Old Lady: 0. As human beings, the greedy species that we are, we assume Jane will keep the cash. She spends a ridiculous $400 getting a ghetto-fab-ridiculous diamond manicure and going on a mild shopping spree. At this point we question, “Wait, what does she do again?”
But as Jane plops down next to her roomie Melissa, taking a hit off her blunt, she asks a “hypothetical” question. What would Melissa do if she found money; return it or keep it? Blazed eyes still on the video game, Melissa responds that she’d return it, “If they really needed it.” This sends Jane on an expedition to be-friend the old woman, Sadie (Besedka Johnson), whether her goal may be subconscious or not.
The film, from this moment on, progresses as a perplexing and continuously intriguing story. Watching Jane attempt a friendship is utterly hilarious. She offers Sadie rides home from the grocery store, is the only person under 70 at Bingo night and speaks in a LA urban slang Sadie struggles to make sense of. It’s an unlikely friendship, a Harold and Maude or an Odd Couple. And it’s wonderfully refreshing.
It’s not till later in the film that we realize what it is that Melissa and Jane actually do. They’re porn stars. But Baker let’s us come to the discovery slowly. We’re given hints. When the puzzle pieces finally come together, it’s not necessarily heart breaking. So many movies about the porn industry want our compassion. Watch the young girl sell her soul and then cry about it in the bathroom! This is not that kind of film. Jane and her “co-stars” seem to be perfectly content with their career choice. To them, sex is just another day at work.
And this is how Starlet finds success. It’s a glance into the daily life of a budding porn star through a simple story about a moral dilemma. Jane’s focus is not on her career, but her friendship with Sadie, and as a result, so is ours.
Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch’s screenplay is illuminated by its cast. Dree Hemingway, a fairly new addition to the silver screen, is promising. She’s heart-warming, genuine and has a sense of humor so quirky we’re not sure whether to laugh or blush. At times, her energy and technique can be lacking, but she’s supported by Besedka’s raw, refreshing wit. Baker allows their chemistry drive the film. And another cast member that can’t be ignored is Stella Maeve. Her Melissa is a juicy, entertaining and still very tragic hot mess.
When an environment and a culture are portrayed realistically in film, attention should be awarded. Starlet not only gives us an enlightening look into its subjects’ lives, but also tells a simple and worthy story. It’s also consistently entertaining. At the end of the day, that’s all true cinema should be about.
The film opens November 9th in Los Angeles and Orange County at the Sundance Cinema Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, Laemmie’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Laemmie’s Town Center 5 in Encino and the Regal University Town center in Irvine.