Tuesday, August 6, 2013

New Face, Old Name: STARLET

There's a new kid in town, and she comes with a distinguished pedigree. Her mother is Mariel, who starred in Manhattan with Woody Allen. Her aunt was Margaux, a model and actress. And her great-grandfather was Ernest, known to have scribbled a noteworthy novel or two. This latest Hemingway goes by the name of Dree, until now a model herself but making an impressive acting debut in Starlet (2012), an unusual, carefully observed indie drama that snuck in and out of theaters before many people (myself included) could notice it.

Resembling a lanky cross between her mom and Bridget Fonda, Hemingway plays Jane, an apparently aimless beauty existing on the fringes of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley with her small dog and a pair of sketchy pothead roommates. After acquiring an old thermos at a yard sale, Jane finds herself compelled to learn more about its former owner, an ornery 85-year-old widower named Sadie—played with prickly impatience by Besedka Johnson (in her only film role before passing away earlier this year).

Hemingway brings the innocence and curiosity of youth to a character who may be on the verge of losing both. In her open features we're given access to Jane's various conflicting impulses—selfishness, guilt, obligation—as she attaches herself to Sadie despite the older woman's resistance. The friendship that slowly takes root resembles two alien species squinting at each other curiously through an inter-dimensional rift. It evolves naturally—in fits and starts and with welcome humor—but never strains for sentiment. It's rare to see such bonding between generations, either in life or art, and there's a real freshness to this oddball pairing.

With just enough plot to move the story forward, Starlet (ostensibly named for Jane's canine companion) is very much about its characters and how each views the world—a world that director/co-writer Sean Baker takes his time revealing. He's not afraid of staging quiet, verité-like scenes, his camera's nonjudgmental gaze taking a fly-on-the-wall approach. It's the kind of story, told in measured, subdued tones, that wouldn't have been out of place in the days of Harold & Maude and Five Easy Pieces (if on a less grand scale). This may task the patience of some viewers, especially in the establishing scenes, but Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch are intent on making this more than merely a character study and aren't afraid to spring the occasional narrative surprise (at least one of which will keep you from nodding off for long).

The acting and direction—abetted by Radium Cheung's lovely desaturated images—remain understated even during the film's more melodramatic moments (mostly involving Jane's increasingly off-the-hook roommate). The supporting cast of unknowns does a believable job, well served by Baker's semi-improvisational style. Stella Maeve, as the needy, unstable roommate, is especially good at conveying her character's petty, drug-fueled sense of entitlement. You can tell she's someone who's watched far too much reality TV.

But it's the chemistry shared by the two untested leads that, more than anything, keeps your attention. Hemingway, so good at conveying Jane's slacker sensuality and growing self-awareness, seems an actress destined for a Sofia Coppola film, while Johnson brings a cranky naturalism to Sadie that a more experienced performer might be tempted to soften with a wink and an excess of technique.

As a kind of offbeat female buddy movie, Starlet includes its share of dramatic conventions and archetypes, if more obliquely used than in mainstream films. But as with most good stories, plot is only the catalyst. The key takeaway remains the relationship between Sadie and Jane. You never forget that these two women see each other across a gulf of over half a century. And yet both of them understand that something besides circumstance, charity, or guilt is drawing them together. Watching them discover what that is—while witnessing the birth of a promising new star—makes Starlet as intriguing as a good mystery.


Ventum Mingit said...

I watched this the day it expired. Glad I did. Just as glad I read you r review too.

My nomination for the Academy Award for Best Line in a Movie Review:

"The friendship that slowly takes root resembles two alien species squinting at each other curiously through an inter-dimensional rift."

David Speranza said...

Thanks, Ventum! Glad you got a chance to check this one out (both film and review). Will do my best to not start working on an Oscar speech...