I can appreciate a lo-fi film as much as the next guy who got into cinema with Werner Herzog and the Dogma years of Lars Von Trier. But Herzog and Von Trier know how to harness the power of raw acting and subvert what may seem an aimless story into a transcendent statement. Starlet, the fourth film by “Greg the Bunny” co-creator Sean Baker, tries to do this but stumbles with characters that never have the chemistry promised by its premise and ends with a limp finale disguised as some sort of profound reveal that the film never seems to earn. In-between there are problematic detours in character behavior and the superfluous notion that unsimulated sex does something to raise the film’s story to some other level.
Dree Hemingway (the great-granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway and daughter of Mariel Hemingway) plays the film’s lead character, Jane. She’s a young woman jumping into the hardcore pornography business in Los Angeles. The title, however, may also refer to her pet Chihuahua, a male dog she named Starlet, which it may as well be all about. The film feels that aimless. It could also reference— and this is the film’s most interesting but under-explored idea— Sadie (Besedka Johnson in her first film, and it shows in a bad, distant way) the elderly woman Jane tries so hard to befriend. It seems Sadie may have been a Hollywood screen siren in her heyday, based on some background characters reaction to spotting her at a coffee shop with Jane, halfway through the film. Beyond that, Sadie always maintains a distance from Jane. They never seem to bond, though Jane keeps trying to insert herself into Sadie’s life by offering her rides to Bingo games and the supermarket or just inviting herself over to Sadie’s house.
The relationship begins with the problematic premise that Jane would even care to be part of Sadie’s life after she buys a thermos off Sadie during a garage sale. It turns out to contain about $10,000 in cash, which Jane discovers while washing it out in her kitchen sink (who would have thought that much cash would barely weigh down a thermos?).
When Jane finds the money, she goes off and starts spending it on things like a $460 manicure and a bejeweled harness for her dog. Jane then returns to Sadie’s house who tells her, “I told you there’s no refunds.” Still, Jane persists, offering her a ride at the supermarket after she pays Sadie’s waiting taxi cab driver to leave. Jane never mentions the money she found, she instead invites herself into Sadie’s house, who chastises her at every turn, when she picks up her chotskies (“Don’t touch that!”) or shares a glass of water with Starlet (“What are you doing? That’s disgusting… and you’re drinking out of it?!”).
Their relationship remains cold and awkward throughout. In her micro shorts and cut-off tops, Jane never seems to make a real effort to connect with Sadie who almost always looks at Jane with disgust. Jane’s shallow questions and comments like, “I like your garden,” never seem to penetrate Sadie. A chemistry never appears, though Jane asks questions of Sadie often. Whatever obscure motivation she might have to befriend Sadie after taking her money remains a mystery, which in turn fails to highlight their relationship, scene after aimless scene. Only when Sadie maces Jane, after she asks Sadie if she ever wins at Bingo, does the film offer something authentic between these two. Conflict is always important between characters, but the conflict must also bring them together, and this movie never does.
The acting also fails to rise to the subtle requirements these characters need for sympathy from the audience. The desperation of the director to reveal Jane’s character is never more visceral than in his decision to show her giving unsimulated head to an actor and being penetrated during her first sex performance for the camera (through some smart editing, porn star Zoe Voss plays Hemingway’s body double). However, her character never seems to change and remains as clueless as ever. The X-rated sex comes across as shocking and unnecessary. Is not the implication she works in porn enough of a reveal?
The only interesting actress in the movie turns out to be Jane’s Oxycontin-popping, pot smoking roommate Melissa (Stella Maeve), an already established porn actress. During one scene, the desperate and conniving Melissa comes roaring to life, as Maeve reveals a dynamic ability to tap into something primal during an argument between Melissa and Jane. It is as if Maeve is trying to show Hemingway how to act.
Small moments of interesting acting are not enough to save this film, however. With its slight, contrived pay off, Starlet is a long film to have to endure for all its half-assed effort. It almost has a salacious and exploitative quality toward Hemingway, which only adds to my disdain for this film. Starlet harbors the potential for something close to heartfelt, but the director only seems to grope around the edges, if only he could stop focusing on Hemingway’s legs.
Starlet is not rated (beyond the drug use and language, there is, of course, the unsimulated sex, so mature audiences only) and runs 103 min. It is currently playing in South Florida at the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, which provided a preview screener for the purpose of this review. If you are in other parts of the US, find out where its playing by visiting the film’s official website.