Human Starlet

in 9th Reykjavík International Film Festival

by Carmen Gray

The winner of the FIPRESCI award at the ninth edition of the Reykjavik International Film Festival was US indie Starlet, from director Sean Baker. Playing out in the Los Angeles suburbs, it’s a beautifully understated and finally very moving depiction of human relationships played out on the tawdry fringes of the Hollywood dream.

The title Starlet is also the name of central protagonist Jane’s pet Chihuahua. Played with an affectingly puzzling mix of gauche cockiness and brittle sweetness by Dree Hemingway, 21-year-old blonde Jane dresses her dog in a rhinestone-studded harness with the word emblazoned on it. This celebrity-tabloid-style image, reminiscent of Paris Hilton, initially stains her character with shallow, vapid ambition.

When the film’s observational gaze is on Jane and her flatmates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone) the pace is loosely episodic, unhurried enliven the frame from them slumped on the couch, playing video games and smoking pot, while sniping about their job worries and other daily niggles. The opposite of high-paced glamour, the mood is one of desultory ennui – and vulgar trashiness, as Melissa’s self-absorbed, petty bitchiness and insecurities escalate, along with Mikey’s pathetically misjudged plans for easy money.

This becomes a backdrop in relief for an event-driven plot based on a significant encounter in Jane’s life, as an unlikely friendship develops between her and an elderly widow (Besedka Johnson, discovered by the producer at the West Hollywood YMCA), which finally allows her to access a dormant emotional plane.

The two cross paths after Jane buys an old thermos at a yard sale, and is shocked to find $10,000 in cash rolled up inside it. Keeping the find from her housemates but deliberating over whether or not to return the money, she pays a visit to its former owner Sadie, only to have the prickly old lady shut the door in her face. Rebuffed, she doesn’t own up to the reason for her call and blows some of the cash on expensive fashion items. But she’s drawn back to the reluctant Sadie, as she tries to assuage a gnawing sense of guilt by foisting helping deeds upon her such as driving her to the supermarket. Grouchily distrustful but lonely, Sadie gradually accepts these gestures, and a genuine affection between the pair grows. Humour and an avoidance of overt sentimentality make the quiet soldering of this bond unexpectedly disarming to witness – especially as we gain increasing hints of the type of void each fills for the other.

This would still seem a fairly run-of-the-mill, commercially-friendly indie were it not for a revelation about the girls’ choice of profession that Baker strategically withholds for three-quarters of an hour in. Empathy is encouraged to grow for Jane before we are taken into the midst of a porn shoot, where she is fulfilling one of her regular stints as actress. Baker adopts a wholly fresh mode of referencing this industry – one that is profoundly humanising for the character of Jane, in that her profession is not condemned with moralistic hysteria or forced to define her, nor is it aped as spectacle in order to objectify her. She is shown going about her job (and explicit sequences with a body double leave no doubt as to exactly what that entails) as an employee would any other task, and at the end of the shoot we see her relaxing with her fellow employees in a down-to-earth mode of camaraderie. In short, porn is shown as a business and a lifestyle choice without judgment or glamourisation (while we still subtly get a sense of the girls’ personal problems and emotional disengagement). That Jane is even granted the conundrum of an ethical dilemma reflects the film’s respect for its women – porn is what she does, not what she is, and her human spirit still questions and expands beyond its narrow quarters.

Carmen Gray