Starlet (Sean Baker, 2012)

In 1971, Hal Ashby released about a young man who is obsessed with death and meets a 79 year-old woman with the same obsession, and thus begins a beautiful friendship. 41 years later, Sean Baker took that film, Harold and Maude, and asked “What if we don’t know why they get along?” The answer is Starlet, a delightful film about Jane (Dree Hemingway, daughter of actress Mariel Hemingway and great-granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway) an early-twenties woman simultaneously living hand-to-mouth and far over her means with a couple crazy roommates and her dog, Starlet.

Jane wakes up one morning after what we can safely assume to be a drug-fueled night and decides she needs some new furniture, so she goes to a yard sale and buys an over-sized thermos from the 80-something Sadie (Besedka Johnson), only to discover it stuffed with $10,000. And thus begins a beautiful friendship.

Starlet takes no easy path, as Jane neither binges nor returns the money, and the cranky Sadie stays cranky the entire film. There are no cliché inter-generational connections to make the characters re-evaluate themselves in Starlet. Instead, Jane is the crazy party-girl, savvy but probably not very educated, maybe even smart, but not particularly ambitious while Sadie is the cranky neighbor, lonely and quietly nostalgic. Jane lives in the now while Sadie lives in the past, but neither is particularly concerned about the future. There is no apparent motivation for Jane’s strange course of action, and while it’s easy to assume that it’s a mixture of guilt but also a need for the money, Hemingway’s performance elevates the character to a level far above what it should be, suggesting equal parts emotion and reason, confidence and uncertainty, and underscoring everything with a fear that translates to the audience. When Jane is waiting for a garbage truck to move so she can pick Sadie up from the grocery store, there is enough suspense to make you think that lives are at stake, and Hemingway’s yells convince us that there actually are. The entire cast is impressive, but Hemingway looks like a break-out star.

When you finally find out what it is that Jane does—exactly, not generally—the film takes an unnecessary turn toward her career and life and the career of her roommate Melissa, and while the entire new plotline seems very disconnected from the humanity of the relationship between Jane and Sadie, the sudden emphasis placed on a new character also takes away a lot of the film’s magic. That Jane enjoys her work so much dispels suspicions that her friendship is a form of escapism, but it also adds very little to the dynamic at the center of the film. Melissa and Mikey’s relationship comes to the forefront, job prospects are discussed, and it feels like Sean Baker accidentally picked up a script to an indie family-drama. It’s a curious but stealthy change of pace for the film, one that was interesting in its own way  but that, upon further reflection, felt like part of a different vision for Starlet that was not made. That everyone’s occupation is hidden from us for so long is bizarre and ultimately misguiding; knowing prior would do nothing to our identification with Jane and that Baker treats it as a major plot point only forces us to make it one. In a script concerned primarily with characters and not with events themselves, this part of the film, while well-written on its own, is out-of-place, however hard Baker tries to make it fit.

Baker is not without his own shortcomings, however; Starlet often finds itself caught between comedy and drama, never finding a working middle-ground. For the most part, Baker favors drama, but occasionally he swings a bit too far to the other side and some of the film’s emotional power is halted, as if Baker is sneakily trying to take our mind off of the film’s underlying purpose. There is always a lingering question about whether you should be laughing or not, even when the film is about to try to be truly special. In his defense, Starlet is indeed very funny when it tries to be, but it feels like it is being forced to try to be funny.

The second-act shift and tonal uncertainty, Starlet sticks to what it does best, lingering on the details of an unlikely friendship to offer insight into the wants and needs of two totally different people separated by at least two generations.  Both find themselves held back by their age and, to a lesser extent, their gender, for different reasons, and so Starlet offers not just a grounded examination of everyday life, but also a restrained feminist and generational discourse. It’s a film that stands apart from its many influences, and with intelligent writing and strong performances, it’s bound to get you thinking about a number of issues, and a smart ending suggests that there is always more to these characters, and if we can take anything away from the fact that they are so different, more to everyone than meets the eye. With a smart story, smarter writing, memorable characters, and impeccable acting, Starlet easily overcomes a couple big flaws.

Grade: B+

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