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Thread: STARLET (Sean Baker 2012)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    STARLET (Sean Baker 2012)

    Sean Baker: STARLET (2012)


    In the valley, above Los Angeles

    There's no avoiding revealing the premise. A pretty girl of twenty-one goes yard sale shopping to give her empty room in a shared house some flavor, and her purchases include a thermos bottle filled with rolls of hundred dollar bills. This discovery leads her back to the grouchy old lady she bought the thermos from, who refuses to take it back, so she goes on spending the money, but also stalks the old lady, seeking to pay her back with friendship and acts of kindness.

    Sean Baker collaborated on the gritty documentary-style feature Take Out, and he shows a documentarian's precision in recording the anomie of his San Fernando Valley milieu in Starlet, his feature debut. It's neatly and fully caught on film: the bleached-out landscapes, the alternately empty or cluttered interiors of houses, a porn filmmaker's convention, real people caught on screen at yard sales or in bingo games with the stars, one of whom is fresh pop royalty, Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel, the other herself an authentic object, the eighty-something non-pro Basedka Johnson. This film of "intergenerational female bonding" is at its best when the jittery, deliberately off-center hi-def camera quietly explores these surroundings or looks crab-wise at its principals, more than when its meandering action is interrupted to grab for plot points, unveil surprises and reveal secrets. Baker is great at soaking up atmosphere and capturing the contrasting moods of his two main characters as they gingerly approach each other. He's better at observing than at story-telling. He manages to skirt indie cliché with his Harold and Maude relationship (Johnson resembles Ruth Gordon, and they often visit a cemetery) and still avoid sentimentality, relying on realism rather than black humor. But his events tend to seem a bit forced and extraneous or at least external to the basic subject, which is a dual character study in which both women are essentially static, or just treading water.

    On the one hand is Jane (Hemingway), also known as Tess, a blithe, model-thin, pretty blonde originally from Jacksonville. She lives with the wired, muscular Mikey (James Ransone) and the dim, hysterical Melissa (Stella Maeve), who deal and take drugs and play X-Box games all day. Tess seems happy doing nothing and nuzzling her young male chihuahua (an unusually placid animal), which she's named Starlet and buys a rhinestone collar for. It's some time before the movie reveals what other business the three are involved in, which she euphemistically tells the old lady, Sadie (Johnson) is "sort of like a temp agency." These "starlets" are hard-core, and when that comes out, it's as casual as typing, and as documentary-real in Baker's filming of it.

    Sadie is a cranky old biddy, so resistant to Tess' advances that early on she sprays Mace in her face. Tess has the resilience of the beautiful and young. Sadie is a widow whose husband was a gambler, "a very good one." She has money (the amount in the thermos was a drop in the bucket) but she's frail and resistant to change. She's in trouble for her overgrown front yard and tree. She wants to play her bingo (which she has no luck at) and be left alone. Johnson captures Sadie's crotchetiness and hostility well. And in a rare closeup of her face with mascaraed eyes it looks like she may have been a starlet once herself.

    The canine Starlet is nicely woven into the action, quietly playing a key role at several points.

    Ultimately it's the SoCal look and feel, the sleaze of the young people's life and the loneliness of the old lady's that this movie is about. Johnson and Hemingway nicely underplay their parts. These can be considered breakthrough performances by both. They and the screenplay (by Baker and Chris Bergoch) avoid sentimentality. If the plot points are sometimes an intrusion, they're not enough to make this seem like a conventional movie. Dargis wrote that this is "about love and moral awakening," but that seems wrong. What's good about this movie is that it's never finally about such concepts. It's simply about these places, these jobs and pastimes, this odd mixture of people who reach out, turn away, then reach out again. But whether this fact is good or not, it's ultimately hard to like anyone here or to find much "meaning" in their indeed somehow very "American" and even specifically San Fernando Valley lives and behavior.

    Starlet debuted at SXSW in Austin in March, and was shown at London, Woodstock, Warsaw, and other festivals. It began a limited US release 9 Nov., and was screened at Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley, California, during a one-week run that began 30 Nov.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-03-2012 at 01:23 AM.


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