Starlet (2012)

by Stefan Pape

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“Although veering towards predictability at times, it does enough to surprise and shock you...”

Although delving into somewhat familiar territory – that of an unlikely friendship formed between contrasting characters - indie director Sean Baker has presented a unique and innovative take on the conventional theme, in his latest indie flick Starlet, which premiered in Britain at the 56th London Film Festival.

We follow the life of introverted 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway), an adult entertainment actress who lives with her temperamental friend and colleague Melissa (Stella Maeve) and finds herself in a dilemma when stumbling across a vast amount of money found in a thermos she purchases at a yard sale. The item originally belonged to the lonely pensioner Sadie (Besedka Johnson), as Jane contemplates whether she should give her the money back, or to hold on to it herself.

However, Jane finds somewhat of a middle ground between the two, opting to keep the thousands of dollars found, but to treat Sadie to gifts, acting as a good samaritan in the process. Sadie is confused by this recent bout of attention paid towards her though, as she tentatively allows the young actress – and her dog Starlet - into her life, as the unlikely pair form a bond, despite their conflicting lifestyles.

Baker strikes a wonderful balance in Starlet whereby we watch on as two worlds, so different to one another, collide to great effect. Well directed and beautifully shot – under the glowing sunshine of California's San Fernando Valley – Starlet features two brilliant performances from our lead roles, as Hemingway moves away from modelling to enter the world of acting with complete ease. Meanwhile, Johnson is fantastic, quite incredible given it's her first acting role, at the age of 85 no less. Maeve also impresses, representing the more prima donna side to the adult entertainment industry, explosive and immoderate at the best of times.

The dog playing the title role of Starlet is also endearing, giving everyone's favourite canine Uggie a run for his money in dog of the year. It's intriguing yet certainly apt that Baker has decided to name this feature after the pet, as Starlet appears to be the only mainstay in Jane's life, representing the only stability she has, as she struggles to hold down any other relationships elsewhere.

Contrasting of the pensive, minimalist approach taken by Baker, the filmmaker manages to surprise the audience throughout, especially in the one explicit scene where we witness Jane at “work”. Although the scene appears as being somewhat x-rated in an otherwise subtle production, it still seems fitting to have been implemented, as while being caring and patient with Sadie, by seeing her in a professional manner dramatically conveys and symbolises the stark difference between the two sides to her life, as the tone of the film changes accordingly. Although I suppose despite it's dramatic effect you can't help but suspect some contrived controversy about it, any publicity is good publicity, after all.

Starlet is independent cinema of the highest order, in what a touching and subtle study of a friendship between two lost souls, as Baker continuously takes us places we hadn't expected. Although veering towards predictability at times, it does enough to surprise and shock you, avoiding contrivance in the process.





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