By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — In this season of attention-getting crowd pleasers and Oscar hopefuls tumbling out of Hollywood, there’s still room for a little movie to come out of nowhere and show the big boys how to do it.
Such is the case with Starlet, a drama centering around an unlikely cross-generational friendship between a young woman and an old woman, both of whom live in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.
Jane is an aspiring 21-year-old actress, played by Dree Hemingway. A Florida transplant, she lives in an anonymous apartment with a Chihuahua named Starlet and two problematic housemates, and manages to pay her rent by working on the lowest rung of the showbiz ladder.
That the film is set where it is and is not rated should tell you all you need to know about what kind of films Jane appears in, even if the script is coy about it during its first half.
At a yard sale one day, Jane purchases an old thermos from an elderly widow named Sadie, played by Basedka Johnson. But when she gets it home, she discovers hidden within it rolls of hundred-dollar bills totaling thousands of dollars.
She doesn’t return the money to Sadie, but, fueled by both curiosity and guilt, she initiates a relationship between them by volunteering to chauffeur her on errands.
By picture’s end, both characters in this two-headed character study, new friends in their common humanity who contribute something valuable to each other’s lives, turn out to be somewhat alike but quite different people than they initially appeared, revealing unexpected layers and secrets just as the film does.
Director Sean Baker (Prince of Broadway, Take Out), who co-wrote the unpredictable script with Chris Bergoch, gets marvelously unaffected and unselfconscious work from his two leads, who have an unforced rapport that directors of costly productions always strive for and rarely achieve.
Baker has an eye for observant real-world details that strongly establish verisimilitude in a near-cinema-verite style; he shoots the scenes that would have earned the film an NC-17 rating with a matter-of-factness that softens any exploitational edges despite their graphic content; and he has the confidence to unspool the film’s final major revelation with wordless poignancy.
Hemingway, a former model debuting as a lead actress who is the great-granddaughter of author Ernest and the daughter of actress Mariel, is an absolute revelation, impressively controlled as the radiant, kind, vital, and gracefully conflicted protagonist.
As is, come to think of it, octogenarian newcomer Johnson, refreshingly and unsentimentally cranky and startlingly set-in-her-ways genuine. Neither of them ever seems to be acting so that, individually and together, they exhibit a naturalness that belies their inexperience in front of the camera and makes watching the film seem downright docudramatic, if not voyeuristic.
Thus will we pay attention to any next movie featuring director Baker, junior starlet Hemingway, or senior starlet Johnson.
So we’ll befriend 3 stars out of 4 for this shooting Starlet, an overachieving little indie and multi-generational collaboration that showcases three talents to watch.