Starlet

Your real friends
Released:
2012

Director: Sean Baker

Starring: Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, Stelle Maeve, James Ransone

The Setup:

Young woman befriends older woman.

Discussion:

This small but very well-done and satisfying little indie film concerns a young woman who finds a ton of cash in a thermos she bought from a woman at a garage sale. She strikes up a tenuous friendship with the woman, and the movie goes from there, but free from the sentimentality that might mar a similar story elsewhere. With good writing and wonderful performances.

So it's one of those nights where there's nothing my and my friend want to see, and we start considering smaller but well-reviewed films, finally settling on this. Once again, it worked out well. We open with our heroine, Jane, waking in an empty room, with her small dog, Starlet. She goes downstairs to find her roommate, Melissa, and Melissa's boyfriend, Mikey, playing video games. Jane asks if she can decorate her room, but Melissa says no, Mikey might want to shoot in there. We see Mikey go outside to deal some drugs. You're kind of wondering: He's going to shoot in there? Are they porn stars? But the movie is content to let that question ride for a while.

Jane goes out looking for decorations anyway. She stops at several garage sales, and at one she buys a thermos from a cantankerous old lady. Jane asks if it's one of those things they keep dead people in. She goes home and discovers about ten thousand dollars in cash inside the thermos, which falls out into the sink as Melissa and Mikey are playing video games in the next room. You've gathered enough about her friends by now that you're sitting there going "Hide the money! Hide the money!" as she gathers it up and heads upstairs. She stashes the cash inside her thigh-high fuchsia boots.

She asks Melissa, theoretically, if you found a bunch of money that someone else didn't know they lost, what should you do? Melissa is primarily interested in getting high, but once she does, says that it depends on if the person really needs the money, and if not, it would be the finder's to spend. Jane goes over to the old woman's house, and is gruffly rebuffed. She follows the woman to the grocery store, sends her waiting cab away, then "happens" to show up and offers a ride. The old woman is named Sadie. Jane invites herself in to put the groceries away, then simply stays, making idle chatter, as Sadie makes absolutely clear that she is not wanted, and what is her problem, anyway?

SPOILERS > > >
Jane has learned that Sadie plays bingo on Saturday nights, and shows up, way out of place among all the elderly there, and sits with Sadie, who is dumbfounded. Turns out Sadie's cab is gone, again, and Jane drives her home. At a light, Sadie sprays Jane with mace and jumps out, calling for the police. The next day, Sadie calls Jane and apologizes, saying the police told her that Jane was being a good samaritan, and she approves of people being good samaritans. They make a date for breakfast the next morning, at seven am, ridiculously early for Jane. At breakfast, Sadie says that her deceased husband was a gambler by profession, and that he left her very well set up. "He was a very good gambler," she says. This satisfies a nagging question in your mind: she doesn't need the money. It also explains how the money got there in the first place.

At home, Jane sees Melissa's rather expensive sports car being stolen. No biggie, it was just repossessed. Melissa is in dire financial straits and borrows a few hundred from Jane. One day, while Jane is out with Sadie, Melissa calls and desperately needs a ride. She is dumbfounded to find this elderly woman in Jane's car. They go to this low-rent office where Melissa throws a scene to their Arabic boss, who tells her he doesn't owe her any money, and he has no work for her. She throws a massive scene, as only quite stupid white trash can, and asks Jane to go in to plead for her. Everyone is happy to see Jane, and the boss tells her she is selling well, and thus will be on the cover. By now you're starting to think: You know, I think they ARE porn stars.

Soon Jane goes to work, and we are left in no doubt that she is porn star. Meanwhile, Melissa has found her stash of money. This generates a great deal of tension for the rest of the film as no one would trust Melissa, whose repossessed car suddenly shows up in the driveway again, and is obviously newly nervous around Jane. You're sitting there like "I wish Jane would go check on her money," and after Mikey completely redoes the living room, buying new leather couches and installing a stripper pole in the center, you're saying "Jane! Go check on your money!" Mikey hilariously is offended that the women don't thank him for the stripper pole. Jane is planning on taking Sadie on a trip to Paris, which she adores but has never been to, and the movie coasts a long while without letting you know whether she'll have any money left by the time the trip arrives.
< < < SPOILERS END

That's one of the main features of the film is the way it creates and sustains these strange tensions as a way of keeping the story involving. It floats until halfway though the film before it lets you know what Jane's profession is. It floats right up until the end whether Sadie will find out where Jane is getting her money. And the second half is filled with almost unbearable tension as to whether Melissa and Mikey are using up Jane's money without her knowing. The answer turns out to be unexpected but fitting. The final effect is you thinking "Wow, smart writing." The whole movie is excellently modulated to keep you involved and a bit on edge, as it lets its story and characters gradually unfold and reveal new information. If only other filmmakers knew how to liven up their tales simply through character and the carefully-modulated release of information. Mention should also be made of a small but harrowing sequence when Sadie briefly has care of Jane's dog.

Then there are the performances. It's not easy to play stupid, truly, deeply, blank-eyed stupid, and both Bree Hemingway [daughter of Mariel] as Jane and especially Stella Maeve as Melissa run away with the gold. In many cases, an actor wants you to know that they are PLAYING stupid, but aren't in fact stupid, and that ironic distance can undermine their performances. Here, both women throw themselves into their characters until you believe that they're as simple as they seem, which results in one getting involved with them, not condescending to them. Besedka Johnson as Sadie is unglamorous, crotchety and frail, which gets around what could easily have slid into sentimental, cliche territory, especially given the storyline of her transforming friendship with a younger woman. And James Ransone, who nearly stole Sinister with his portrayal of a dim deputy, is again perfectly believable as a macho but dumb-as-bricks drug dealer/porn director.

When it's over, nothing to tell everyone to run out and see, but a surprisingly solid and intriguing film that unfolds carefully, keeps you engaged through interesting characters and good writing, and comes out much better than you might have expected. If you're in the mood for a good, unsentimental drama, here you go.

Should you watch it?

Yes, it's very well-done and you'll like it.

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