Starlet (2012)

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Browsing the many titles on Netflix once more, after the dust had settled from reviewing Fantasia Festival, I was struck with that same feeling again of uncertainty staring at a long list of what you assume to be largely mediocre titles, and films you’ve seen before. I knew what I wanted; something with that indie vibe to it, similar to Short Term 12 or Upstream Color, a film you could immerse yourself into, fall asleep watching yet want to stay awake and finish it. I found that in Starlet.

Dree Hemingway (Listen Up Philip, While We’re Young) stars as Jane, an effortlessly attractive blonde who swans about in revealing clothing, spending her days getting high with her housemates and taking her male Chihuahua, ‘Starlet’, for walks. Her housemates are a bit of a nightmare; constantly bickering, strapped for cash and have the controlling share of the house, limiting her freedom and ability to enjoy her spare time (of which she has lots of).

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The housemates give in, convincing Jane to go to a yard sale and kit out her room with cheap items rather than drop a load of cash in Ikea. At this yard sale, she meets Sadie (Besedka Johnson), an old lady, seemingly bitter and angry at the fact she is even having a yard sale in the first place. Jane buys a thermos from Sadie, takes it home, and uncovers that the thermos contains a large quantity of cash.

Morally conflicted, Jane considers returning the cash, but is met with hostility from Sadie out of sheer anti-socialism and that defensive attitude many old people have. Consequently a different tact is implored; by way of repayment, Jane attempts to force a friendship with this lonely, straight-talking, old lady.

While this far from comedic, odd-couple premise is quickly established early on, you cannot fault the film for its nonchalant unpredictability from here on out. Jane’s lifestyle is completely different to Sadie’s, and it is this contrast of vastly opposite lives, perspectives and histories that shape this film into the unexpected, heartwarming tale that Starlet becomes. Jane’s gradual discoveries about Sadie create an air of sympathy, but ultimately strengthen the connection between the audience and our two central characters. This is not shoveled on, it happens naturally and allows us to invest in this attempt at friendship.

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Dree Hemingway delivers an excellent performance as an innocent girl, with an inquisitive nature searching for something more. She has a job that is best left unmentioned for spoiler purposes, but this does not become the focal point for her character nor is it judged in any way. Her job is simply that; a job, and what happens outside of it with her interaction with Sadie is the primary focus of her character. Besedka Johnson, fulfils her childhood dream of being an actress at the age of 85, starring in her first and last film in what is a truly exceptional performance, and one you would attribute to an experienced actress.

Starlet embodies the typical aesthetic you expect from indie cinema these days, with its shaky camera and the dusty Instagram styled filters, but the typical traits stop there. Writer/Director/Producer Sean Baker is a great talent, taking us on a journey that has every potential to veer off in any direction. It is unsettling at times, as he toys with tipping the balance from the sweet disposition we become accustomed to, with the unsavoury subplot from the previously mentioned housemates; the storytelling is simple but effective.

This is the first of Baker’s films I’ve been able to see, but with his hit from Sundance Tangerine being met with widespread critical acclaim, you can’t go far wrong with watching Starlet for free on Netflix until Tangerine gets its general release.

Starlet is available on Netflix US/UK.

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