Bingo and porn: Starlet ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 1, 2012)

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As the Hollywood hype machine prepares to carpet bomb the multiplexes with hobbits and SEALs, it’s reassuring to know that even in the midst of  Oscar-bait season, it is still possible to unearth a small, no-budget gem like Starlet. An insightful, 1970s-style character study in the tradition of Harry and Tonto and Harold and Maude, it’s an episodic slice-of-life tale about an unlikely friendship between a 21 year-old porno actress and her misanthropic 85 year-old neighbor. Now…I know what you’re thinking; while this film is “unrated” , it is not as salacious as it might sound.

For example, it may surprise you to learn that the eponymous character is actually a Chihuahua (and again, get your mind out of the gutter). The adorable little scene-stealer is in the care of a sweet natured young woman named Jane (Dree Hemingway), who shares a house in the San Fernando Valley with her high-strung co-worker Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Melissa’s skuzzy drug-dealing boyfriend Mikey (James Ransone). It goes without saying that the roommates have, shall we say, non-traditional jobs. Consequently they enjoy quite a leisurely schedule (you know…get up at the crack of noon, fire up a couple bong hits for breakfast, and then while away the days zoning out on video games).

While she obviously shares some of the lifestyle trappings, there’s something that sets Jane apart from her comparatively dysfunctional roomies (Melissa is a drama queen, and Mikey is the type of guy whose idea of home improvement is to install a stripper pole in the living room). Jane, on the other hand, possesses a down-to-earth quality that makes you wonder how “a nice girl like that” wound up in the porn biz.

However, she isn’t necessarily incorruptible, as is evidenced when she buys a thermos at a neighborhood yard sale from a cranky widow named Sadie (Besedka Johnson) . Jane discovers $10,000 in rolled-up bills stashed inside. While her first instinct is to return the money, she does decide to “give it back”, but in her own unique way. Initially, she wants to sate her curiosity. But as we know-you can’t always go digging into other people’s secrets without getting your own hands dirty.

This is an impressive starring debut for the 25 year-old Hemingway (daughter of Mariel). At times (not surprisingly), her brave performance strongly evokes her mother’s role as Playboy model Dorothy Stratten in Bob Fosse’s 1983 film, Star 80 (Starlet is more sexually explicit, but it’s rendered in a relatively tasteful manner, and while it’s still enough to earn the film an “NR” rating, the brief scenes merely serve to establish what Jane does for a living). Johnson is equally impressive, perhaps even more so considering that she apparently has never acted before (at 87, she is likely the most mature “hot new talent” to keep an eye on). She and Hemingway have a lovely chemistry; both give warm, naturalistic performances.

I was surprised to discover that director Sean Baker and his writing partner Chris Bergoch were the same creative tag team behind the cult TV series Greg the Bunny (I never would have made a connection between a whacked out, puppetry-based satire like that and a thoughtful, beautifully acted art house drama like Starlet…but then again, Peter Jackson made Meet the Feebles and Heavenly Creatures…so anything’s possible).

Thematically, Baker’s film reminded me of two other L.A. based character studies-Adrian Lyne’s highly underrated Foxes, and Robert Altman’s 3 Women, in the way that it delicately sifts through the complexities of female friendships (inter-generational and otherwise). Also akin to Altman’s film, the cinematography (by Radium Cheung) utilizes the hazy, diffuse light of the sun-bleached L.A. environs to help create a languid, dreamy mood; providing the perfect canvas for a story that moves right about at the speed of life.

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