When it comes to awkwardness, there’s a fine line between endearing and uncomfortable, with a delicate balance being hard to come by. Sean Baker’s (Prince of Broadway) second directorial feature, Starlet, struggles to find a happy medium between the two stages of the social handicap. The indie film spends most of its time trying to bask in the “glory” of its own peculiarity, making for some lengthy stints at cringingly uneasy character interactions and bouts of silence. It sometimes manages to overcome its need to revel in the uncomfortable strangeness of unlikely exchanges and has glimmers of understatedly lifelike believability. There’s something to be said for the intimate, almost home-video feel Baker achieves in his filming style, but it may be due to this choice that the narrative often comes across as a bit clumsy.
Set in the San Fernando Valley, the underlying connotations of which are suspected throughout and later confirmed, Starlet brings together aspiring young actress Jane (Dree Hemingway) and elderly widow Sadie (Besedka Johnson) in a puzzling friendship. Jane has recently uprooted to California from her hometown in Florida with her dog, after whom the film is titled, to pursue a career in acting and spends most of her time aimlessly traipsing about town and getting high with her two dysfunctional roommates. Upon discovering a stash of money in a thermos she buys from a yard sale at Sadie’s home and feeling guilty for not returning it, Jane takes it upon herself to befriend and assist the old lady, despite the latter’s initial resistance. She begins doing small favors for her and driving her around for errands and eventually plans a trip for the two of them to Paris, a lifelong dream-destination for Sadie. Just before their departure, Jane stumbles across a heart-wrenching family secret never willingly divulged by Sadie, which adds a depth of understanding between them.
While the premise is pretty simple and plays upon the dilemma of moral obligations, the film doesn’t concern itself too much with developing character relationships. The friendship which Jane and Sadie gradually and expectedly ease into requires little effort or emotional investment from either of them, though we’re lead to believe it’s a bold step out of their respective zones of comfort. Some welcome scraps of insight are occasionally revealed, but mostly end up in a pile of minimal relevance. It’s a missed opportunity, however predictable, that Sadie never questions Jane about her exploits in adult entertainment, though she does make a reference to her having “not a very strenuous schedule.” The film is ultimately more of a mini-narrative than a character study and doesn’t aim to make any sweeping statements about human interaction. Apart from the little revelation at the end, there’s little to authenticate the motives or emotions of the characters, who are running through the motions of their expected actions with a detachment that’s not nearly as intriguing as a state of melancholy.
The acting is not terrible, but is alternatively amateur and decent at moments. Given that they’re made to portray rather stock characters, the actors do what they can, though it seems Hemingway is wedged into the role, being better suited as a model than an actor. Johnson at the ripe age of 85, makes her acting debut in a respectable, though noticeable, first effort. Stella Maeve, who plays Melissa, visibly relishes her role as the simultaneously sassy and subdued roommate who stirs up some tension between Jane and her new friend. Starlet, the precious dog, oddly is not the star of the film and has very little to do with it despite adorably occupying the same environment as its characters. One of the more likeable components is the film’s music scored by Manual, but unfortunately, in an attempt to preserve the pervading quietness, it’s jarringly cut short and offered in bits and pieces, opting for more elemental sounds like wind, traffic, and breathing to fill the frequent silences.
Baker’s depiction of an unexpected friendship budding amidst aimlessness is expectedly generic and falls short of evoking any serious mediation on life, if that is his intent. The film will be screening at the AFI Film Festival on Monday, Nov. 5 and will open in limited theaters in Los Angeles and New York, followed by select national releases.