A mismatched-friends drama whose overall sensitivity is belied by a couple of clumsily contrived plot points, Sean Baker's "Starlet" pairs story and setting perfectly.
Set in California's San Fernando Valley where, according to production designer Mari Yui and high-def director of photography Radium Cheung, primary colors simply do not exist, the film is as pale as its protagonist's blonde hair - distractingly so, though the look does suit a film about seeking connection in a soulless world.
Dree Hemingway plays Jane, a frighteningly skinny 21 year old who finds $10,000 rolled up in a Thermos bought at a yard sale. Conscience-struck, she tries to return the loot to the ornery 85 year old who sold it to her, but Sadie (Besedka Johnson) won't even let her get a sentence out. "I told you, no refunds!" she shouts, slamming the door in Jane's face. Johnson's performance received special recognition on the festival circuit, and if the nod comes partly because it's the actress' late-in-life acting debut, it probably didn't hurt that Johnson is admirably committed to this sketchy premise, rebuffing Jane's inquiries with such baffling ferocity that the girl has to stalk her way into Sadie's life.
Hemingway finds soul in a vacant-looking character, a girl whose passive acceptance of the sleaze around her (like her drug-abusing roommates' lifestyle) makes her seem unlikely to pursue a friendship both challenging and far outside her world. Starlet is the name of Jane's Chihuahua, but the movie's title hints at the way Jane and her friends make their living; the script is slow to reveal details, but Baker's camera doesn't flinch when it's time to show the character going to work, and this part of Jane's life is a provocative counterpoint to scenes in which she ferries Sadie to the grocery store and sits playing Bingo with her.
The elder woman has her own secrets, and viewers may come to accept her initially outrageous behavior as a natural response to deep pain. But "Starlet," thankfully, keeps armchair psychology to a minimum, and is best when these two women (and the dog) are alone in the frame, trying to be human beings in a place where humanity can be a liability.
"Starlet," a Music Box release, is not rated. 107 minutes.