An intergenerational relationship drama between a flighty girl in her 20s and a slightly crotchety octogenarian is not the kind of film that would usually work its way high up my list of viewing priorities but something in an article I read early on regarding Sean Baker’s indie film Starlet made me take note. I am so glad that over a year later the film title was still in my head and that it got programmed – surely late in its international festival run? – in our own NZIFF (with the director present for a post screening Q+A) to become one of my top films of the year thus far.
Jane (Dree Hemingway – yes, that Hemingway!) is a pretty, fresh faced young (and relatively new) L.A. resident living a seemingly free and easy life who, rummaging in yard sales to spruce up her new room, chances upon a flask full of rolled up and bundled $100 bills. Wondering what to do with her find she casually sounds out the elderly lady Sadie (newcomer Besedka Johnson) from whose sale she obtained the flask and its contents. After a couple of awkward encounters their acquaintance soon blossoms into a intriguingly odd and vital friendship with Jane’s eponymous little dog ‘Starlet’ as the mortar in between (an appropriately relaxed canine performance from the director’s own dog Boonee!) Despite encountering their fair share of usual and not so usual challenges – from porn to bingo! – the pair cements a meaningful friendship as each unknowingly fills areas of loss and grief in the other.
Phenomenally written (by director Baker and associate producer/regular collaborator Chris Bergoch, both of Greg the Bunny fame) the screenplay is rich, warm, and adroitly funny; including moments of real tension and drama without the need to resort to pathos. An even more impressive feat considering the story/script was penned by two 40 year old men; it doesn’t reek of awful gender bias or stereotype. Well, at least not to this (admittedly) male viewer. Such decent source material is then entrusted to two perfectly cast performers. Both lead actors totally inhabit their roles which must, to some degree, include a part of their own personalities. Dree Hemingway’s Jane is so natural and effortless whilst Besedka Johnson in her only screen role – sadly, Besedka passed away in April of 2013 but not before garnering awards from SXSW and the Independent Spirit Awards for her performance – is wholly convincing as the slightly misanthropic and suspicious, though independent, old biddy Sadie. Support cast are also up to the task with Jane’s housemates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone) adding splashes of humour and hysterics in good measure.
The above factors would make for a very good film but Baker take things a few steps further by engaging in some refreshingly original editing, camera, and sound work. Where a standard dramatic indie film might utilise a lot of handheld or tight in shots Baker and his upcoming cinematographer Radium Cheung (gaffer on Junebug, Blue Valentine, Silent House, and Margin Call amongst others) opt for a lot of longer shots and broad canvasses in not traditionally ‘wide’ settings. The edit (Baker edits as well!) is a creative affair beginning in a purposefully glitchy fashion with unexpected cuts from one scene to the next and sudden changes in diegetic and nondiegetic sound. Slowly these techniques are reined in mirroring the stabilising versus enlivening effect each woman has in the life of the other. Starlet proves both a smartly and artfully constructed film with a narrative to do it justice. A pleasure to watch, I would make this film a priority and will keep an eager eye out for further works from Sean Baker and co.
Rating: R16 Drug use, offensive language & explicit sexual material.