You may have never heard of Sean Baker, but he’s one of the most astute and least sentimental chroniclers of life on the fringes working in film today. His earlier films “Prince of Broadway” and “Take Out” dealt with immigrants hustling to make a living in a wintry, bustling New York City.
With “Starlet,” he shows that his aesthetic works just as well in the sun-bleached San Fernando Valley.
That’s where Florida transplant Jane (Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel) lives with her dog, Starlet, and two somewhat unsavory housemates, Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone). At a yard sale, Jane buys an old thermos that turns out to be filled with money; she tries returning it to Sadie (Besedka Johnson), but the cranky old lady rebuffs her with a curt “No refunds!”
After just one shopping spree, Jane starts feeling guilty about the cash, so she tries insinuating herself into Sadie’s life, first showing up at the grocery store to give her a ride home and then popping into Sadie’s weekly church bingo game.
“Starlet” lets us know early on that whatever friendship arises between the two isn’t going to be some gooey greeting-card commercial of the “Tuesdays with Morrie” school -- that’s made clear somewhere around the time when the suspicious Sadie maces Jane -- but both women discover a mutual need for companionship as they begin spending more time together.
Both Jane and Sadie are keeping secrets from each other, and from the audience, that begin to emerge as the plot develops, and Baker (who co-wrote with Chris Bergoch) is more interested in allowing his characters to unfold than in hitting all the story beats.
This is one of those all-too-rare movies that assumes you’re paying enough attention that you don’t have to have everything repeated to you three times. (If you’re checking your iPhone during a brief phone conversation Jane has with her mother, you’ll miss everything you need to know about their relationship.)
All of the film’s acting feels spontaneous and organic, as befits Baker’s naturalist style, and the two leads are particularly extraordinary. Hemingway has the sunny appeal of a young Daryl Hannah or Bridget Fonda, and she makes us want to know more about a character that could easily have been rendered merely a two-dimensional twit in the hands of a lesser actress. (Not to give away any spoilers, but she also takes the character to some places where other performers might have feared to tread.)
Johnson, surprisingly, has never been in a movie before (the press notes claim she was “discovered” at a YWCA), but she makes Sadie a fascinating character. Shunning any clichés of how older women behave, Johnson gives us a fully inhabited woman who’s neither dotty nor doting nor helpless. Like anyone else, her Sadie feels capable of compassion or cruelty in any given situation.
“Starlet” achieves a kind of subtle grace that may keep it from being the kind of film that gets embraced by a mass audience, but if you’re in the mood for a movie that rewards an attentive, intelligent viewer, it’s a joyous experience.