It’s a groaner of a Sundance-y synopsis. Young porn star befriends a cranky 85-year-old woman. Together, they play bingo. I’ll pause for the prerequisite eye-rolling before we continue because Sean Baker’s Starlet almost miraculously transcends this story’s cornball trappings, with a minor-key muted humanism and bruised emotions roiling just beneath the surface. It’s a hushed marvel of a movie.
Dree Hemingway stars as Jane, drifting aimlessly through her early 20s in the San Fernando Valley, often in a semi-stoned fog. She shares a nondescript apartment with a druggy, bitchy co-worker (Stella Maeve) and a low-rent hustler (James Ransone), but Jane’s only real attachment is to her Chihuahua, a male she nonetheless calls Starlet.
Jane buys a thermos at a yard sale, getting into a minor tiff with the brusque elderly lady selling it after making the mistake of saying it might make a pretty vase. The older woman is quite humorously incensed by the idea of using any object for something besides its proper function, and their transaction isn’t exactly friendly.
Then Jane opens the Thermos when she gets home, and discovers $10,000. Should she give it back? Would you?
Jane stashes the cash in one of her many pairs of thigh-high boots and impulsively decides to befriend this woman before figuring out how to proceed. This involves a lot of stalking around the grocery store and so many suspicious chance meetings that Jane eventually ends up with a face full of pepper spray.
She’s a tough one, this old broad. Played by Besedka Johnson in a remarkable debut performance, Sadie is not your stereotypical saintly grandmother type. Closed off from the world, all alone in an enormous, cluttered house with an overgrown yard, Sadie is stubbornly set in her ways and hardly about to open up to some willowy young gal in short-shorts. But Jane is nothing if not doggedly persistent, and it’s not like she’s got much to do all day in the first place. Over the long haul, she grinds down Sadie’s defenses, finally getting permission to accompany her to a comically joyless bingo parlor.
So what’s Jane really up to here? Is she just hanging out with this ornery old crone so she can feel less guilty about keeping the money? What makes Starlet so compulsively watchable is that Baker refuses to telegraph his characters’ motivations, keeping them shrouded in a beguiling air of mystery while the film breezes along in lowercase letter, day-to-day realism. Baker and cinematographer Radium Cheung conjure a particularly effective aura of sun-drenched, under-employed indolence, with long, wasted days of video games and inertia.
For this approach, Hemingway might be the perfect camera subject. A dead ringer for her mom, Mariel, she effortlessly holds the screen with a captivating, natural authority and legs longer than a Russian novel. She’s got her mother’s mousy voice, but there’s a steely resolve in there too, suggesting a rocky past that’s perhaps better left unexplained. Baker is extremely careful not to tell us much about these people, their stories revealed through behavior instead of dialogue.
He plays a perplexing slight-of-hand regarding Jane’s profession, keeping it a secret for almost 40 minutes, for reasons that escape me. Whatever the case, a porn shoot has never been rendered with such dreary banality, just another workday job like any other, with shockingly explicit acts of intimacy going on while people are talking on cell phones and fussing with camera lenses. Baker approaches the industry with a droll emphasis on boring business details, an autograph session at an L.A. expo being a particular highlight of sultry poses and phony smiles.
Jane and Sadie grow closer, but Starlet isn’t about to allow them any conventional heart-to-heart conversations about what this friendship means. It is obviously coming from a place of great loss in both of their lives, but both characters are too damaged and protect themselves too dearly to ever say as much out loud. The final shot supplies all the information we require, brilliantly finding a purely visual way to drop a backstory bombshell, and then, of course, they don’t talk about it.
Jane and Sadie don’t need to talk about it. And that’s what makes Starlet so special.