By Ray Pride
Sean Baker’s “Starlet” is shot through with a drowsy widescreen California haze, capturing a climate without seasons, where the passing of the youth of the beautiful and young is as unremarked upon as the quiet rustle of the elderly through grocery stores and hedgerows and rowhouses. Even indoors, curtains closed, sun-bright diffusion whitens the so-ordinary rooms.
The throughline of “Starlet” is a “Harold And Maude”-like blossoming of an unlikely friendship between two women, twenty-one-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway) and the older Sadie (eighty-five-year-old Besedka Johnson), who meet after Jane finds money inside a yard-sale purchase from solitary Sadie. Jane is immediately fascinated with what lies behind this woman’s façade, and the stories that must lie behind the rolls of hundred-dollar bills, to the point of becoming a stalker. Both Hemingway (daughter of Mariel, great-granddaughter of Ernest) and Johnson are first-time feature actors, and the notes they hit as two very different characters are as fresh and vital as any this year. Johnson, discovered at a Hollywood YMCA, had never acted, but her line deliveries are comic gold, pained, exasperated, territorial, as in the run-on “I’m playing bingo leave me alone.”
Jane’s a Florida transplant, new to Los Angeles, apartment surfing, and presently crashing in a room courtesy of her friend Melissa (Stella Maeve) and her small-time hoodlum boyfriend, Mikey (James Ransone). Maeve’s performance as a dislikable, cocky, drug-baffled young woman is as sophisticated as those of the other women, packing its own unexpected punch.
“Starlet” is rich with the sort of non-judgmental, near-ethnographic attention to detail that marked Baker’s two excellent earlier features, “Take Out” (2004), about the bicycle-paced routine of a Chinese Manhattan restaurant-delivery man, and “Prince of Broadway” (2008, released 2010), about a Ghanaian street hustler in New York who finds himself liberated by the appearance of a small child. In all three features, with a delicate vérité brush of the hand, Baker illustrates the lives of outsiders with canny naturalism.
Baker holds his cards close: what do these women, these girl-children, do for work? Jane’s playing party girl, to be sure, and we fear the Valley sex industry is not far away. His documentary meticulousness extends from Jane’s temporary lodgings, with an exploded suitcase crowned by a pair of sneakers that match the orange of her nail polish, to the details of how a porno episode is shot with a newcomer, in the ways of the act, the co-workers’ camaraderie, the actions behind the camera.
Jane’s filled with immaterial opinions, making considered judgments about ordinary things: the effect’s comic but also slowly reveals a character in search of something to do with her life, and also in need of a maternal connection that Sadie might provide. “Maybe I should just go to IKEA or something,” Jane says. “Don’t waste money on new shit, go to a yard sale,” Melissa says, unwittingly setting the movie in motion, sending the willowy blonde, midriff-baring, pastel-clad, Converse hightop-brandishing, Chihuahua-toting Jane toward Sadie.
The insistent halation in the images by cinematographer Radium Cheung make Jane seem whiter-than-white, near-translucent, but streets and parks also hum, capturing the San Fernando Valley in a way akin to what late cinematographer Harris Savides was up to in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” and Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” (both 2010). It promises the illusion of tranquility, torpor, a giddy blindedness. It matches Jane’s guileless character, Hemingway’s blissed-innocent performance.
Baker also finds moments that float beside the story, in a manner akin to the elliptical minimalism of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” with which it shares producers. The widescreen camera often moves off the characters into a different frame, as when the shot travels with Jane as she crosses a street, with high tension electrical towers in the background, and the image floats for just a moment toward the horizon even as she leaves frame. It’s weirdly lovely, even magical as the musical theme kicks. That same electronic theme begins and ends at eccentric, but effective intervals. And when Jane drives alone, her car’s filled with rap music she seems not to notice, despite violent, antagonistic lyrics.
But these details don’t detract from the characters; the suspicion of the older woman, the heartfelt daffiness of the younger. Sadie’s not quite “Grey Gardens”‘ Edie Beale, and Jane’s not exactly “Boogie Nights”‘ Rollergirl, despite her range of 1970s-style (or American Apparel-style) skimpies and rompers and range of high-top colors. The screenplay parcels information reluctantly, but both Hemingway and Johnson speak volumes through splendid, detailed, often hesitant, but always-precise performances. Even the side characters have dimension, as when Melissa, a lying, temperamental mess, when asked to ponder a moral question, thinks, then answers, “Yeahh, I’m not high enough for these stupid questions.” Jane and Melissa are two young women, selling, being bought, young for a moment, who could just grow as old, but perhaps not as solitary, as Sadie in this never-changing climate.
“Starlet,” “for mature audiences only,” opens Friday at the Music Box. The trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.