New on DVD this week through Soda Pictures, Sean Baker’s Starlet (2012) is a sun-drenched LA-based drama that’s almost as warm and glamorous as its geographical setting. Starring Dree Hemingway (the great-granddaughter of novelist Ernest Hemingway) in her first leading role, Baker’s film may contain the same adult iconography of his TV puppet show Greg the Bunny, yet couldn’t be further apart in tone and mood. Hemingway stars as Jane, who has recently moved from Jacksonville, Florida, to enhance her career within the flourishing ‘adult entertainment’ industry. On arrival, she rents a room from her friend and work colleague Gracie (Liz Beebe).
As Gracie’s boyfriend uses the room for shoots – thus meaning that Jane can’t decorate despite her protestations – she instead decides to personalise it on the cheap by shopping around local yard sales for furniture. It’s here that she first meets Sadie (Besedka Johnson), an elderly and temperamental old woman she purchases a Thermos from to use as a vase. However, when Jane discovers $10,000 hidden inside she finds herself in a moral quandary. Unwilling to give up this significant sum of cash, she decides to assist Sadie in order to ease her aching conscience. What initially begins as an awkward series of encounters between two unconventional characters soon blossoms into something far more meaningful.
Despite seemingly underestimating its audience’s intelligence, unaware that the electric chemistry shared between Hemingway and Johnson is more than enough to express the ingrained emotions this friendship evokes for both of them, Starlet remains a curiously engrossing watch. Almost undoubtedly, it’s the remarkable performances from the film’s two leads that mask any visible blemishes. Hemingway is extremely watchable, radiating a subtle vulnerability whilst simultaneously presenting a veneer of vapid disinterest and the emotional numbness necessary to succeed in her pornographic career. Johnson is perhaps the more remarkable of the two, stealing the show with a fragile, nuanced performance.
The peripheral acting in this heartfelt drama masquerading as a morality tale is unsurprisingly at the level of many of the pornographic films it aims to critique which, whilst in keeping with Starlet’s sleazy Los Angeles backdrop, does somewhat dilute the audiences overall enjoyment and investment in this delicately tuned story. Unassuming and unkempt, yet inexplicably compelling thanks primarily to the film’s two leads, Baker’s Starlet is – much like the stereotypical perspective on glamour models – beautifully rendered, ostensibly shallow, but sill ultimately fruitful in its aim to entertain and gratify.
This review was originally published on 18 October 2012 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.