A ‘Starlet’ just waiting to be discovered

Almost any movie benefits when you go into it not knowing much about it, but that’s an increasingly rare experience nowadays. When Starlet opened in New York and L.A. in November 2012, it was disappointing to see how many media outlets that routinely fall in line with studio requests not to give away spoilers for, say, Prometheus, casually gave away a big surprise in Starlet, sometimes even in the opening paragraph of their reviews.

The good news is that Starlet isn’t the sort of flick that lives or dies by a major plot twist. An astute viewer may intuit what’s afoot early on, and part of the pleasure of the movie is how the screenplay leads, 45 minutes in, to a major “reveal,” as they say in Hollywood, without having to cheat or mislead the audience. (The script by writer-director Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch eschews the obvious and predictable at every turn.)

Unlikely pals: Sadie (Besedka Johnson) and Jane (Dree Hemingway). © Copyright Music Box Films.

More important, as I discovered, knowing the surprise in advance doesn’t detract from what a good movie Starlet turns out to be, and it doesn’t prepare you for how unexpectedly poignant another revelation turns out to be, in the last two minutes of the film.

Jane (Dree Hemingway) lives in the sort of drab pre-fab San Fernando Valley apartment that’s like a 21st-century incarnation of purgatory: not so much ugly as devoid of character, soulless. And as in purgatory, people here are in a holding pattern, waiting for their lives to change. Twenty-one-year-old Jane is a transplant from Jacksonville, and she seemingly has little to occupy her time. But she’s a go-getter compared to her slacker roommates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone), a couple of sorts, who idle away their time doing bong hits, snorting Oxycontin and playing video games. It’s possible that no printed matter has ever darkened the door of this apartment.

Stella Maeve and James Ransone as the roommates from hell. © Copyright Music Box Films.

Unhappy with how bare her room is, Jane cruises around the Valley in search of yard sales, with Starlet, her pet Chihuahua, in the passenger seat.  At one yard sale she buys a large urn from a cranky old woman named Sadie (85-year-old Besedka Johnson). Cleaning the urn at home, Jane discovers it contains multiple rolls of hundred-dollar bills — something like 10 grand in all. She keeps the discovery from her roommates and hides the money in her closet.

Guilt or nagging curiosity persuades her to bring the urn back to Sadie. The old woman is rudely dismissive, shutting her front door in Jane’s face before she can get two words out. But an uneasy conscience — along with, perhaps, some other, less easily defined need — compels Jane to keep working her way into Sadie’s life. She tries to give Sadie a lift home from the grocery store, and gets a face full of Mace for her troubles.

Couch potatoes: Dree Hemingway, Stella Maeve. © Copyright Music Box Films.

This plays out as less cute than you might expect. Sadie is a guarded, prickly old woman, without a trace of Ruth Gordon in her. The filmmakers are not encouraging us to love her. But Jane persists in trying to forge a connection with Sadie, to the bafflement of her roomie Melissa. If I describe Starlet as a touching indie film about an unlikely connection between two strangers, how many people will roll their eyes and banish the movie from their queues forever? (I might have done the same, but for the unusually intriguing — and spoiler-free — reviews from J. Hoberman and the NY TimesManohla Dargis.)

Director Baker resorts to impressively little dramatic telegraphing here — it’s as if the filmmaking is keyed into the laid-back vibe of the characters’ San Fernando Valley milieu. The distinctly casual, nonjudgmental atmosphere is echt Southern California. The depiction of the Valley also captures the way parts of the area, like Sadie’s neighborhood of modest one-story houses, still evoke an older, almost sleepy feel that has all but vanished south of Mulholland.

Valley girls: Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson. © Copyright Music Box Films.

The filmmaking is understated but consistently sharp in capturing this world: DP Radium Cheung floods the screen with yellow and gold — the inescapable sunlight of L.A. in high summer. The light and the blue sky are paradisiacal, a tourist’s dream of L.A. Yet in shot after shot Baker and Cheung make sure we see how every vista is dominated by utility towers and power lines, and mile after mile of low concrete buildings. The setting feels mundane, even ugly, yet at the same time airy, insubstantial. As she drives around, Jane could be drifting along the edge of a void. It’s no wonder she’s drawn to Sadie, the one person who is resolutely fixed here, rooted to the earth in her house filled with decades of clutter.

A dual character study that continually deepens, with assured, unhurried storytelling; Starlet quietly evokes 1970s American cinema, without falling into mere homage. In particular, the weightless lifestyles and subtle dislocations of the L.A. milieu recall Robert Altman’s 3 Women, and as in that character-driven mystery, Starlet is a showcase for two female leads.

Watch any 30 seconds of Starlet and you can appreciate how Dree Hemingway is almost uncannily photogenic. (Her mother is Mariel Hemingway, and you probably read her great-grandfather’s work in a high school English class.)

What takes a little longer to sink in is how complete the illusion of spontaneity and naturalism is in her performance. Jane is so open and trusting, almost child-like, that at times she’s a borderline space cadet, charming but potentially exasperating. Hemingway is so convincing that a viewer might ask, what boondocks town did the producers find this girl in? (In fact Hemingway is a former model who studied at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.)

Sixty years older than Hemingway, Besedka Johnson was discovered, as they say, by one of the producers at an L.A. YWCA. It’s a great story, and also a little bittersweet: Johnson became ill around the time Starlet came out in theaters, and died last month, at the age of 87. (You can read her L.A. Times obituary here.)

Two discoveries: Besedka Johnson, Dree Hemingway. © Copyright Music Box Films.

Johnson’s accomplished first-time performance isn’t like the blank, monotone readings that sometimes result when nonprofessionals are cast in movies. She doesn’t need to do much Acting — Sadie is an isolated old woman, stubbornly clinging to her dignity against the invasion of the unfamiliar that Jane initially represents, so the character is never going to be effusive. But as Sadie’s relationship with Jane deepens, Johnson lets us see a subtle erosion of Sadie’s reserve and a wider range of emotions. The performance and Baker’s direction never signal to us that we’re supposed to find Sadie endearing. The key to her character, as we find out, is that she doesn’t ask for anyone’s sympathy.

Starlet proves to be a work of more hard-headed realism than the “two strangers meet, form heartwarming bond” capsule description might suggest. A character who in a more conventional feature would experience an inevitable arc of redemption simply continues on a trajectory that’s far from what the audience would wish for. But the last few minutes suggest that this unexpected friendship might be mutually redemptive regardless of the other circumstances of these women’s lives.

A movie that has adhered to a low-key naturalism ends on a stylistic flourish: no dialogue, just ambient sound and an electronic score, shrewdly underused until now, welling up on the soundtrack as the camera captures a sudden rush of understanding on one character’s face, before the image gives way to beautiful abstraction. Reminiscent of the ending to one of the great Kieslowski movies, the unexpected emotional kick here caught me off guard, and when it was over I found myself wondering, how did they do that?

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