‘Idiotic floozy’ was the first description that the character of Jane in Sean Baker’s Starlet brought to mind. Jane, played by Dree Hemingway, is a frustrating young Floridian recently re-located to California. Dree has moved in with her friend Melissa, reminiscent of Snooki, and Melissa’s obnoxious boyfriend Mikey.
About halfway through the film it hits you that these characters are great. Their irritatingly childish antics are complex and refreshing. One comes to see that Jane’s character is a sad product of her childhood and those around her. Jane is emotionally and intellectually stunted, which renders her as a grown-up Lolita, highlighted by Hemingway’s childish voice and seductive glances. Jane, and her friend Melissa, have come to depend on their sexuality as their means of income. We repeatedly witness their degradation by Mikey and their boss, a creepy and entirely believable porn producer.
The development of Jane’s character and our interest in her is driven by her fledgling relationship with the elderly Sadie. Jane purchases a thermos from Sadie and discovers $10,000 stashed inside. Jane at first reacts with a shopping spree, which includes a personalized, rhinestone collar for her beloved dog Starlet. Morality, though, seems to check Jane and drive her back to the cranky Sadie, wittily played by first time actress Besedka Johnson. Sadie sharply turns down the well-meaning aid of Jane, only to find Jane extremely persistent in spending time with the widow. Their relationship remains awkward for quite some time, but one can see how both Sadie and Jane are genuinely in need of love.
The cinematography wonderfully mirrors the changing dynamics between Jane and Sadie. Baker, also a co-writer and editor, deftly takes advantage of his camera. At first sharp cuts and short focus are uncomfortably intrusive such that we almost end up feeling like one of Jane’s nerdy fans. These intriguing cuts are pervasive through the film, adding to the young character’s lack of direction, as well as reflecting their many smoking sessions. With the growth of Sadie and Jane’s relationship, the camera allows us to feel more intimately involved with the two, instead us pushing us out as a voyeur. The lighting and de-saturated colors brings to mind a pastoral setting, which further forces us to consider the melancholy state of Jane’s life.
This is perhaps the most intriguing part of Starlet: the truly crappy situation Jane, and her ‘friends’ are in. Jane is lonely, poor and abused. Sadie, too, has been tossed around by life and rendered into this angry, pathetic woman. The circumstances of these characters lend sentiment to their relationship. In watching them bond it is hard not to feel any emotion. Our connection to them and awareness of the crass nature of Jane’s situation and Sadie’s loneliness creates extremely heartbreaking moments.
Many of these are centered on Jane’s Chihuahua Starlet, who is the anchor of her happiness. Baker succeeds in making Starlet more than the cute dog of a pretty blonde LA girl. Baker exposes the façade of this image, and of Jane’s beauty. Starlet itself is much more than a surface film, despite the platonic May-December plotline. Starlet demands something on the part of the viewers and justly rewards them with an intriguing and touching film.
[Release Date November 19th]