A Review of Sean Baker’s Starlet: The Surprising Power of the Ordinary


Film: Starlet
Director: Sean Baker
Primary Cast: Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, Stella Maeve, James Ransone, Karren Karagulian
US Release Date: 9 November 2012

Jane (Hemingway) is a young porn actress who lives with her friend Melissa (Maeve) and Melissa’s boyfriend Mikey (Ransone) in their California apartment. Jane has few acquaintances, and other than her car and a Chihuahua named Starlet, she seems to have very little to call her own.

At the beginning of the film, Jane decides that she wants to personalize her room, even though Mikey will be periodically using it to shoot porn. Jane then goes to a series of yard sales, where she buys various decorations. One of these decorations is a large thermos, which she purchases from an old woman named Sadie (Johnson). After returning home, Jane discovers $10,000 in cash stashed inside the thermos. After spending some of the money, she attempts to return the rest, but Sadie refuses to give her the time of day. Later, Jane follows Sadie’s cab to the grocery store and pays the driver to leave. Jane then waits for Sadie to exit the store and offers to take her home.

Though their initial encounters are quite awkward—and though Sadie is slow to trust Jane—Jane and Sadie gradually develop a significant, if unconventional bond. Whether she is motivated by guilt, curiosity, loneliness, pity, or some combination of all 4, Jane is persistent and repeatedly goes out of her way to connect with Sadie. In many ways, the two women couldn’t be more different, but Jane’s efforts still pay off in the end.

Directed by Sean Baker (Tangerine), Starlet is a remarkably human film that both believes in and skillfully takes advantage of the dramatic potential of ordinary life. Though the film is set in Southern California, the story that it tells could easily be transposed to just about anywhere in the world. Similarly, while Jane’s work as a porn actress does impact the story, it has very little to do with her character or with how that character interacts with others. In fact, Starlet’s message and impact are so broad, that just about anyone with a pulse will be affected by the film if they are open to it. At the same time, Baker’s characters are so fully realized, that they never feel like stand-ins or cutouts.
Get Starlet on Blu-ray.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspects of Starlet are its respect for its characters and its emotional sincerity. The film’s script, which was written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, does (like so many others) rely on coincidence to a certain extent, but it also gives viewers the powerful impression that they are watching—and hopefully, being powerfully affected by—something akin to real life. Yes, Starlet is a movie, but it approaches its characters in such a natural and unassuming manner, that the reality of its contrivance all but disappears. Consequently, viewers may find that there is very little standing between them and people on screen, which greatly increases Starlet’s ability to work its way into the hearts of those who see it.

Starlet’s performances and the depth of its characters are also crucial to its realistic and affecting storytelling. As Jane and Sadie, Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson both feel wonderfully authentic, and they anchor the film well. There is a certain advantage that comes with using performers who are largely (or even entirely) unknown, and Baker’s film capitalizes on them beautifully. Baker also gives his characters enough space and time to develop into complete individuals. Starlet doesn’t waste time telling viewers much about Jane or Sadie’s backstories; instead, the film depicts its characters in an intimate manner while allowing viewers to get to know them by hearing how they speak and by seeing how they act. Where a lesser film might waste time telling audiences who these women are, Starlet just shows them instead. In fact, even a side character like Melissa isn’t flat and comes across as a complete individual, and even Jane’s dog is portrayed with enough care that viewers will probably feel connected to him.

No one in Starlet is without flaws. Jane, Sadie, and Melissa all have their problems and even navigate some moral gray areas, but that does not change the fact that they are worthy of sympathy or that they have worthwhile stories to tell. Baker has eye for the powerful details found in real life and an ear for the way people actually talk, both of which help his characters to leap from the screen. After watching Starlet and Tangerine, it is clear to me that Baker also has an incredible knack for telling everyday stories concerning everyday individuals—as well as those who are often overlooked by Hollywood—in a respectful, but compelling manner.

Starlet is the sort of film that is likely to sneak up on its viewers. Like the relationship between Sadie and Jane, Starlet increases in strength so slowly that its potential can be easy to miss—that is, until it hits you right in the chest. It may take its time, but the film packs quite the emotional punch, and it presents viewers with a beautiful example of tender, thoughtful, and well-rounded storytelling. At its heart, Starlet is a film about an unlikely bond that develops between two people at very different—but surprisingly similar—places in life; and while the film makes no efforts to sensationalize the events at its heart, it still manages to get a great deal of mileage out of them.

It’s also worth noting Starlet’s refusal to make Jane’s job as a porn actress its focus. Jane and Melissa are both in porn, but Baker does not make the mistake of using their line of work to define them or of exploiting their jobs for shock value. Jane’s job is a part of her life, but it’s not what places her at the heart of the film. As in Tangerine, the sex workers in Starlet aren’t defined by or judged for their work, and the film is much better for it.

While it does present an affecting story featuring memorable and multi-dimensional individuals, Starlet does have its problems. The most noticeable of these it that it’s a bit too slow. Viewers who stick with the film will be rewarded with both emotional and dramatic payoffs, but Starlet still takes too long get where it’s going. Cutting the insurance subplot—which doesn’t add much at all to the film’s story or characters—would have improved the film by keeping it more focused, and speeding the overall pacing just a touch may have tightened things up enough to elevate Starlet to an even higher level.

Until Next Time
My schedule has changed quite a bit lately, so forgive me if posts are a little more spread out than usual. I’ll adjust, but it could take a little while. I may also have to watch more movies online than in theaters for the next few months . . . maybe I’ll finally make a dent in my watchlist . . .

Also, Starlet is currently available on Netflix, so maybe catch it there if you can.

As always, thank you so much for reading. If you have anything you’d like to add, feel free to leave a comment below or to connect with me on twitter. If you leave a comment, please keep in mind that it may take up to 24 hours to appear, since I’ll need to approve it. Anyone who is interested can also support Words on Films by donating here.

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