The May-December relationship is one of the oldest plot frameworks in movies, but Sean Baker’s amiably oblique Starlet finds fresh ways to tell a familiar story.
One blindingly sunny morning in the ratty end of the San Fernando Valley, we drop in on Jane (Dree Hemingway), a slender, attractive, twentysomething blond. Jane shares a house with Melissa (Stella Maeve), a moronic would-be hottie who spends most of her time playing video games and smoking dope with Mikey (James Ransone), an even dumber guy who’s always promoting something with a tweaker’s zeal.
At a yard sale, Jane buys a Thermos bottle from a grumpy senior citizen named Sadie (85-year-old neophyte actress Besedka Johnson) and guiltily initiates a friendship with her, helping the initially wary Sadie with things like trips to the grocery. The friendship blossoms. We won’t say exactly why Jane feels so guilty. Like the question of how the two cute housemates support themselves, it comes out as the story unfolds. Let’s just say that they’re in a branch of the entertainment industry. After all, this is the Valley.
Jane has a pet Chihuahua called Starlet, even though he’s a male, so he’s a Starlet and so is his mistress. The screenplay by director Baker and writer/actor Chris Bergoch performs an appropriate brand of low-key indie magic on Jane and Sadie as they play bingo, talk about Sadie’s deceased gambler husband, and together encounter the dangers of lower-middle-class life in the beat-out suburbs. Character actor Karren Karagulian lends a succinct touch of that danger as Jane and Melissa’s boss, alongside cameos by real-life porn stars Asa Akira and Manuel Ferrara.
Both Ms. Hemingway — daughter of Mariel, great-granddaughter of Ernest, and a former RADA student in London — and Ms. Johnson are blessed with camera-ready faces, and in their mouths even the most stripped-down dialogue assumes stealthy importance. We can’t wait to see them work again, and the same goes for Baker.