Judge Bill Gibron's found a lot of truth in this small independent effort.
For Mature Audiences Only
Jane (Dree Hemingway, The Truth About Angels) is an aimless young woman living in the lurid San Fernando Valley. Her career path has lead her to some desperate measures, but for the most part, she likes to hang out with her drug-addled, gamer roommates Mikey (James Ransome, Treme) and Melissa (Stella Maeve, The Runaways), play with her petite Chihuahua Starlet, and cruise garage sales. One day, she stumbles across a decorative thermos that she wants to make into a vase. While cleaning it, she comes across $10,000 in carefully concealed money rolls stuck inside.
At first, she wants to go on a spending spree. Then she figures that the woman who sold it to her probably didn't know it's gone missing, so she decides to return it. Turns out, the feisty old coot is named Sadie (Besedka Johnson) and she's not interested in having Jane be part of her life. After getting to know one another, they form an uneasy friendship. Sadie even confesses to Jane a desire to travel to Paris. Their bond is tested, however, when the truth about our young heroine's job jeopardizes things, as does Melissa's discovery of all that money.
As a collection of character beats, as an insular means to an amazingly entertaining ends, Starlet is exceptional. Does it have its flaws? Absolutely. Will you care once the final denouement scenes unfold. Probably not. Co-writer and director Sean Baker does such a great job seducing us, worming his way into Jane and Sadie's sad little worlds, that our concern over character motivations or ancillary elements simply wash away. In their place is a sense of purpose, heart and helping where hopelessness previously ruled. Sure, we've seen something like this before, but not necessarily put in this way. Baker believes in the power of people, their presence and ability to recall recognizable personality.
For her part, Mariel's daughter Dree does an amazing job capturing Jane's wasted wannabe facade. Clearly a young woman who must now use other "resources" to get ahead, that desire for stardom which brought her West is now merely glimmer in her saddened eyes. Certainly there is a slight amateurishness to her turn, but that's welcome here. The real revelation, however, is Besedka Johnson. Deciding to become an actress at age 86 is no mean feat, and what she does here is simply stunning. It's as if, outside of her obvious years, she manages to capture an entire lifetime in little quirks and nuances. It's not a showy turn, really. Instead, it's one forged out of a near century of existence. Sadie's story is just as melancholy as Jane's and together they turn an interior indie into a work of wonder.
As for the Blu-ray release from Music Box Films, the tech specs are equally impressive. The 1080p, 2.40:1 image is impressive, an intriguing juxtaposition of golden sun-dappled days and pale skinned humanity. There color scheme is very muted, and limited, but this was clearly Baker's intent, and it works. As for the sound, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is terrific. It provides a nice sense of spatial ambience while utilizing its many channels to bring other scenes to vivid life. The dialogue is always easy to understand and the score subtle and effective.
As for added content, we are treated to a dense audio commentary featuring most of the crew and some of the cast (sadly, Ms. Johnson is not present). While appearing to be pieced together from recollections recorded separately, it's a great overview of the Starlet production. There's a good Behind the Scenes featurette, as well as docs on a specific sequence, the editing process, how the film was received at SXSW, rehearsal, and a talk with Stella Maeve about her character. There's also an intriguing screen test by Ms. Johnson which showcases Baker's decision to hire her.
While it's secrets may seem obvious after a while, Starlet is one of those films that doesn't live or die by them. Instead, it's a smart, often complicated look at dreams deferred, and what we do to try and recapture them. Highly recommended.
Not guilty. An excellent little film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
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