In two of her most prominent early roles — as Woody Allen's teenage girlfriend in Manhattan and as Dorothy Stratten, the slain Playboy centerfold in Bob Fosse's Star 80 — Mariel Hemingway played young women under the sway of older, more powerful men. Both characters are objects of beauty, and Hemingway's soft voice and hazy eyes reinforced their passivity, even as they hid a more introspective side. The overall effect is an innocent, almost childlike openness, like a blank slate ready for imprinting.
Appearing in Starlet in her first lead role, Hemingway's 24-year-old daughter, Dree, uncannily recalls her mother, playing Jane, a California blonde whose occupation as a sometime porn actress suits an unsettled, transient lifestyle. The one major difference is Jane's confidence: She's willing to go with the flow, but only to a point, when she reveals a surprising stubbornness and tenacity.
Yet her defining characteristics are curiosity and openness, which may be a prerequisite for the job, but which also serve her well when she enters into an unlikely friendship with a widow about 60 years her senior.
Co-written and directed by Sean Baker, co-creator of the cult TV show Greg the Bunny, Starlet represents a welcome throwback to the smoggy West Coast character studies of the 1970s — and not just because the generational chasm between its two leads evokes Harold and Maude.
It has the offbeat premise of run-of-the-mill indie fare — Harold and Maude is nothing if not the wellspring of modern indie quirk — but Baker adds a beautiful SoCal texture and vibe, and takes his time sussing out the complicated motivations of his mismatched characters.
Though Baker doesn't hurry to detail precisely what Jane does for a living, it's clear from the start that she draws from a thin supply of available cash and occupies a living space that lacks the security of a lease. While bargain-hunting at local yard sales, Jane finds a cheap thermos she intends to repurpose as a vase — but when she gets it home, she discovers roll after roll of cash stashed inside, adding up to about $10,000. Does she keep it, knowing that the half-demented old woman who sold it to her would never miss it? Or does she do the honorable thing and return the money?
Faced with those two choices, Jane takes Option 3: Keep the money and treat herself to a few things, like a rhinestone collar for her pet chihuahua, Starlet, but assuage her guilt by helping the cranky old widow, Sadie (Besedka Johnson), who sold it to her.
Sadie doesn't particularly want a friend, as it turns out, but Jane is doggedly persistent, which simultaneously wears down Sadie's defenses and raises suspicion over why this young stranger is going through all the effort.
Jane and Sadie make a charming odd couple — one a vivacious, unabashed spark plug in crop tops and hot pants, the other a cantankerous octogenarian who gives as good as she gets. But Baker and the two leads don't get too cutesy about these characters and their friendship, which curbs any false sentimentality while honoring the tenuous bond between women who cling to each other for ambiguous reasons. He's content to let the mystery linger.
He also takes pains to get the incidental details right, like outlining the contours of Jane's life as a porn actress in the San Bernardino Valley. Her room in a generic two-story doubles as a space for XXX webcam and video shoots, and her time on set, rendered with a casual explicitness, feels authentic, too; it's like she's clocking into an odd job.
Starlet shows enough of her unbalanced, unsustainable situation to make sense of her connection to Sadie, however frail a ballast her new friend might be. Their need for each other is disarmingly sweet, but far from sticky. (Recommended)