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— Sean Baker’s Starlet has a sunny SoCal vibe that belies its tawdry milieu; Jane (Dree Hemingway) is a recent transplant to the San Fernando Valley, where’s she’s employed in one of the area’s chief industries — she works trade shows for adult moviemakers and is looking to break in as on-camera talent.

She lives, provisionally, with similarly situated girlfriend Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Melissa’s drug dealer boyfriend Mikey (James Ransone) in a nearly empty suburban condo owned by someone who, at some point, may want to use Jane’s room as a porno set. So she’s not allowed to paint the place.

It’s the desire to redecorate that sends her out to neighborhood yard sales where she buys, for a couple of dollars, an old Thermos she means to use as a vase. “No refunds,” says the seller, a caustic old widow.

When she gets home, Jane finds $10,000 in the Thermos and, after wrestling with her conscience for a few seconds, decides to return it. Then she doesn’t. But she begins an odd and touching courtship with the octogenarian Sadie (Besedka Johnson, a remarkable 86-year-old first-time actor discovered at a local YMCA) whose late husband, it turns out, was a gambler (and a “good one”).

Hemingway, who looks a little like a Giacometti statue of her mother, Mariel (Woody Allen’s 17-year-old muse in Manhattan, and the granddaughter of the writer), brings a sense of sweet unmooredness to her role as the slightly spacey Jane, a natural caretaker whose tender instincts extend to the unbalanced Melissa and a rescued Chihuahua mix (named “Starlet”). It’s an unaffected, intelligent and subtle performance in a role that’s not nearly as salacious as it might be.

And as Sadie’s obstinacy and suspicion slowly yield to Jane’s kindly stalking, we begin to understand that there’s something more than guilt motivating this young, directionless woman. Jane’s looking for some sort of familial anchor and her relationship with Sadie grows organically into something emotionally complex yet functional, a necessarily jury-rigged relationship that works well enough.

Baker, best known as one of the creators of the puppetdriven sitcom Greg the Bunny (early on in the film, the show gets a negative review from Melissa), seems to have a genuine fascination with the marginal yet comfortable lives lived by Jane and Sadie, and the unsentimental details of Valley life and the adult film trade feel right. Baker never condescends to his characters; he never reduces them to stereotypical bimbos or cranky oldsters.

Though the film’s audience is limited by its more sensational aspects — the film is unrated, but would earn at least an R if not an NC-17 were it submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America board — the overall effect is of well-observed, minor-key exploration of intergenerational friendship that owes an obvious debt to Harold and Maude but earns its tear-jerking final frames.


88 Cast: Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, James Ransone, Stella Maeve Director: Sean Baker Rating: Not rated Running time: 103 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 12/07/2012

Print Headline: Starlet


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