Starlet

Besedka Johnson, left, and Dree Hemingway (Music Box Films)

Directed by Sean Baker
Produced by Blake Ashman Kipervaser
Written by Baker & Chris Bergoch
Released by Music Box Films
USA. 104 Min. Not rated
With Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, Stella Maeve, James Ransone & Karren Karagulian

The fringe of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame attracts all kinds of get-rich-quick dreamers and schemers, now and in the past. Sweet, blonde Jane (Dree Hemingway, Mariel’s daughter in her lovely debut) arrived from Florida with stars in her eyes and optimistically named her Chihuahua Starlet, but so far she shares a messy house in the San Fernando Valley with her friend and co-worker Melissa (Stella Maeve), whose drug-dealing, video-game-obsessed boyfriend Mikey (James Ransone) comes up with money-making ideas for Internet porn.

To furnish her bare room, Jane drives around to yard sales and finds one in front of the home of a crotchety old lady, Sadie (Besedka Johnson, in her debut, too, at 85 years old), who insists Jane buy a vase, which uncomfortably looks like a cremation urn. The removal of the items for sale has barely freed a pathway into Sadie’s house, stuffed with souvenirs. She’s just selling off the bare minimum to keep her insurance company convinced she can live safely at home, so she demands that Jane at least buy a thermos for a couple of bucks. But back home, little Starlet accidentally knocks over the container, and out falls thousands of dollars.

Delighted at first, Jane goes on a shopping spree and pays out big tips at a nail salon and to cab drivers. But amidst her tawdry environment, even with rent due, she’s stirred by the ethical quandary about finding the money and what she should do. She goes back to the old lady’s house, but gets the door slammed in her face and a “No refunds!” response from Sadie. Jane still feels guilty, and contrives an elaborate series of amusing coincidences to be helpful to the isolated, very suspicious woman, spinning loquacious excuses about why she’s at a supermarket and then, in a very complicated ruse, why she’s the youngest person who just happens to show up at Sadie’s favorite bingo parlor. Jane is absolutely irresistible as she learns and really gets into playing bingo, and she slowly wins over the very grudging Sadie to more and more call on her for help with errands and doctor’s appointments. Much of the film deals with their very charming, burgeoning relationship as Sadie reveals little bits about her life, sometimes through the memorabilia filling her house. A snow globe with the Eiffel Tower turns out to really be from Las Vegas, leading Sadie to talk about her late husband, the professional gambler.

Dark clouds appear over their sunny skies as Jane doesn’t equally reveal all to Sadie, even when she needs Sadie’s help to dog-sit while she has to work one weekend—greeting fans of her porn DVDs at an adult movie expo. (Hemingway is quick to point out in interviews that there is a body double in the credits.) Her girl-next-door look and cheerful helpfulness has also made her a future star for porn mogul (and family guy) Arash (Karren Karagulian), who promises to get her breasts “fixed” with a Beverly Hills doctor. Melissa, though, is not as successful at the same job, with a drug habit and an attitude that rebels against the control and tough payment rules at Arash’s fancy webcam brothel (which is, sadly, full of girls in every room). What with the repo man at her door for her car, Melissa becomes more anxious for money and suspicious of Jane’s sudden spendthrift ways and new friend.

With both Hemingway giving her naïf substance and Johnson gradually turning her crone into a caring mother-figure (for both Jane and Starlet), the very natural development of their twosome is similar, in a different setting, to how director Seth Baker drew out sympathetic connections between different types of characters in his previous New York-set films Take Out (2008) and Prince Of Broadway (2010). Together, the women resolve the pressures around them in surprising ways so that their winning poignancy makes up for the fanciful conclusion.

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