*** (out of four)
Jane (Dree Hemingway) is a young L.A.-via-Florida girl who’s as obnoxiously aloof as she is stick-thin. Sadie (Besedka Johnson) is an elderly widow who acts as if it’s a huge hassle to give Jane tap water—sans ice—after Jane drives Sadie home from the store. There’s no reason to think these two could be friends.
Yet director/co-writer Sean Baker makes the Independent Spirit Award-winning “Starlet” work better than it should, despite building on contrivances and too-blatantly rigging emotional turning points.
Jane drives Sadie home because Jane recently purchased a Thermos at Sadie’s garage sale—only to find about $10,000 inside. Jane spends a bit and stashes the rest. Sadie doesn’t seem to need it, and Jane doesn’t confess her findings. For now, Jane just hangs with Sadie, who gradually believes the young girl isn’t trying to scam her out of something—well, after Sadie sprays her with mace.
By the way, Jane and her roommate Melissa (Stella Maeve) are porn stars, but Baker does an even better job than the recent “About Cherry” in presenting the job as a job and not making a big deal out of it. (Google the recent study that found female porn stars actually have high self-esteem and positivity.) That said, Melissa is bad news—as Zara Valentine, she stars in “Hot Mess,” a title Melissa deserves—and suffice to say there’s only so long two roommates can live in peace when one has hidden a bunch of cash and the other is bananas.
An effectively sleazy turn from James Ransone (very funny in “Sinister”) as Melissa’s boyfriend Mikey, who demands Jane light his bowl so he can continue playing a video game, underlines the fragility of Jane’s situation. Baker lets us fill in most of the gaps of how she got to this place. Hemingway’s very good at taking a character who often seems like an insufferable L.A. stereotype and shading her with a range of values and feelings that exist somewhere in those thigh-high socks. She and Johnson help Jane and Sadie’s relationship to develop hesitantly but tenderly, to the point where any secrets between them almost don’t matter based on the role they play in each other’s lives.
By the time Sadie “star-sits” for Jane’s (male) dog, Starlet, Sadie cares enough to cry as she walks around town looking for the lost dog. “Starlet” succeeds because it makes us believe that she’s not just tearing up over the four legs that got away.
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