On the scene since directing 2000′s Four Letter Words filmmaker Sean Baker, in his fourth outing, makes a statement with his latest, Starlet, a beautiful yet understated character study of guilt, connection and life in the blistering heat of California’s San Fernado Valley.
Jane (Dree Hemingway), a stunning but introverted twenty something – along with her trusty dog Starlet – drifts through life in a seemingly blissful dreamlike state. However, her life takes a strange turn when she buys a small trinket from an old woman in a yard sale discovering, when returning home, a large sum of money in its contents. Struggling with the dilemma of whether she should keep or give back the money, Jane turns her attention to Sadie (Besedka Johnson), the lonely old widow whom she had purchased the item from. The two strike up a peculiar friendship and as they grow closer, motivations become more complex.
Opening with a moral dilemma anyone can put themselves in, Starlet surprisingly turns in another – more fulfilling – direction that treats the will she/ won’t she aspect of the story as nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. Intelligently starting off rather flakey and breezy before digging deeper into the actual implications of guilt and how, in this situation, Jane’s own guilt – as well as her actions – might make Sadie’s life better. Tackling the question of what is in Sadie’s best interest – knowing the truth and probably breaking her relationship with Jane or remaining in the dark and having a friend.
Trading a lot off the chemistry between the leads, the mix between the mesmerising beauty of Hemingway and the hilarious bluntness of Johnson (who in her first role at the age of 85 is nothing short of mind-blowing) it feels like a classic comedy duo in the making. Not that their relationship is played for laughs, the generation gap organically just creates amusing situations and realistic confrontations. The way they play off each other, through the littlest gesture or idiosyncrasy, makes it seem that they’ve known each other for years.
Also, the sun bleached style Baker goes for, depicting life in the valley in a sort of constant haze, instantly draws you in and gets under your skin. And it’s a film not without of its fair share of surprises, pulling back the curtain to a lifestyle and profession that is rarely represented as such. Experimenting by humanising a type of person, through a really well orchestrated plot, so that the character is not dictated by or pre-judged. Letting you know and connect with the character before revealing her secrets.
Gorgeous and driven, Starlet is a remarkable film that shocks but charms, that has weight but remains digestible, and that sticks in the back of your mind like the daring piece of art it is. It may feel like a fluffy indie but don’t let it fool you, there’s plenty more going on under this car’s bonet.