So what, in movie terms, is a “sleeper”? It used to be that a sleeper was an unheralded movie that took critics or captured audiences by surprise. In the age of total marketing, such commodities are harder to come by. Another factor is the proliferation of film festivals; there are fewer and fewer ambitious, little movies that open up without being vetted and positioned by the pros.
And what constitutes a “spoiler”? Is it a bit of advance knowledge that prevents a viewer from imagining that he or she is seeing a movie is a state of blissful ignorance (as if)? The thing is, just about the only way to watch unspoiled, unknown movies is at its film festival premiere—which brings me to the case of “Starlet” which, opening today in New York and Los Angeles, was certainly the most the least predictable and most haunting movie I saw in competition last March at SXSW.
Sean Baker’s character-driven second feature was described in the SXSW catalog as recounting “the unlikely friendship between 21-year-old Jane (model Dree Hemingway of the Hemingway Hemingways) and 85-year-old Sadie” (octogenarian Besedka Johnson, discovered, according the director, exercising in a Los Angeles gym). True enough but, if you want to experience the movie in the same virginal condition as I did, stop here and go take a look. Don’t read any other reviews either, although I must say that Manohla Dargis’s savvy favorable notice in the New York Times is a model of discretion. “Starlet” is certainly a movie that plays fair. The shock cut that arrives midway through is exceedingly well set up, as is the movie’s quite different and quite moving kicker that, although also amply anticipated, shifts the movie onto a new plane.
As its title suggests, “Starlet” is a Hollywood story, albeit one that Hollywood would not be likely to produce. The “unlikely friendship” between childlike Jane and cantankerous Sadie is not only miraculously unsentimental but played out in a tawdry show biz context. The movie has been trimmed a bit since SXSW; it still feels a bit long but that’s also because there is a lot going on. The movie narrative gets complicated because, as hints of back stories surface without coalescing, Jane and Sadie grow ever more interesting as characters.
“Starlet” took me by surprise although, on seeing it again, I realized that Baker was strewing clues from the very first scene of Jane and her roommate Melissa (Stella Maeve) lolling about their generic, mainly empty pad, smoking weed. Jane’s phone call to her mother, back in Florida, is crucial. So is her lack of squeamishness with regards to her pet Chihuahua (the Starlet of the title), as well as the scene wherein two guys are startled to see her as she sits sedately drinking coffee with Sadie (and the way she acknowledges their without acknowledging their recognition), not to mention Sadie’s first encounter with the volatile Melissa.
I don’t want to tell tales out of school but my SXSW jury spent a certain amount of time discussing “Starlet”’s naturalism—or lack thereof. To a non-Angelino like myself, the Valley locations were highly evocative, as was the particular milieu. Perhaps it was the naïve optimism that struck some as false (although Dree Hemingway is as uncannily natural as her character is naturally generous.) Jane is fundamentally untarnished and unspoiled. Most obvious on a second view, was the degree to which she resolves a particular moral dilemma and the extent to which “Starlet” is a study of two strong, independent, intermittently annoying, and highly self-sufficient women.
Image: Music Box