DVD Review: Starlet

STUDIO: Music Box Films | DIRECTOR: Sean Baker | CAST: Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, Stella Maeve, James Ransone, Karren Karagulian
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 5/7/2013 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $34.95
BONUSES: featurette, cast auditions
SPECS: NR | 103 min. | Drama | 2.35:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

Sean Baker’s (Prince of Broadway, Take Out) Starlet is a good reminder of what truly independent filmmaking is supposed to be: realistic characters with all their warts on display; underplayed dialogue delivered naturally; a narrative more concerned with existential truth than Syd Field’s 3-Act Structure. Most importantly, it’s a film with a stubbornly non-judgmental point of view, not a product of committees catering to perceived demographics.

Starlet movie scene

Dree Hemingway (l.) and Stella Maeve in Starlet.

Starlet starts out questionably- on purpose, perhaps- by throwing us a potentially clichéd premise right off the bat: what would you do if you found a ton of money stashed inside a vase you had just bought from a neighbor? It’s admittedly not the most original of premises; nor does it help that the first three characters we meet come off as unlikeable lowlifes who do nothing but bicker, play video games and get high. To the audience, the film’s point-of-view is frustratingly neutral, leaving us confused about what to think. Are we supposed to find these characters funny? Lovable? Annoying? But this turns out to be precisely the point, and Starlet succeeds because it wins you over without providing the emotional cues you’ve come to expect from mainstream cinema.

Things pick up as protagonist Jane (Dree Hemingway), a pretty hang-around actress wannabe, guiltily strikes up an acquaintance with the vase’s elderly owner, Sadie (Besedka Johnson), hoping to pay her back without paying her back. Sadie is understandably suspicious and resistant to Jane’s neighborly attempts, but in the end, Jane wins Sadie – and us – over with her flawed but sincere attempts at trying to do the right thing. Baker has the ability to compose a compelling story out of seemingly inconsequential scenes; little seems to happen in any of them, but put them together and there’s a lot going on. It’s one of those films that is so underplayed, you don’t notice how much craft had to have gone into the script and rehearsals, until you remember how many similarly-styled films are out there that are just plain meandering and boring. Starlet is never either.

By the time the film ends, Sadie and Jane, subtlely but sharply realized by Hemingway and Johnson, seem like people you’ve known for years, their relationship cemented by a mutual understanding and acceptance of each other’s failures. It’s basically a love story without romance, made all the more poignant by a surprise twist in the middle of the film that, in any other movie, might have been seen as gratuitous. Not in this flick, though. Everything is given the same evenhanded, non-judgmental treatment, leaving it up to the viewer to ponder, long after the credits have rolled. It doesn’t get more independent than that.

Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and a look at the cast auditions, which will prove interesting to film buffs if only because Besedka Johnson, who died last month at the age of 87, was a non-actor discovered while swimming at a local YMCA. Starlet was her first, and last, performance.

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About Memo

Memo Salazar attempts many things and accomplishes few. His big three are making films, music, and comics, but he'll throw photography, graphic design and film criticism into the ring for good measure. He'll even make you a hand-painted t-shirt if you ask nicely. You can track his activity here when there's nothing else to do at work.