Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, Stella Maeve, James Ransone, Karren Karagulian, Asa Akira, Manuel Ferrara
Written by: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Directed by: Sean Baker
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 103
Date: 11/03/2012
IMDB

Starlet (2012)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Thermos Full of Love

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Here's a movie that takes the usual "liar" plot and makes it work, by not actually focusing on the lie as the end-all, be-all of the movie.

For the uninitiated, the "liar" plot is usually, but not always, employed by romantic comedies. A character tells a lie to (or withholds the truth from) another character, an act that brings them together. This character then spends the rest of the movie wrestling with how and when to tell the truth. The truth comes out at the end of the second act, which leads to a fight. The main character must then spend the third act trying to make up for this mistake. The last movie to use this stupid device was People Like Us, but you can find it just about anywhere.

Anyway, in Starlet, our main character is Jane. Played by Dree Hemingway -- the great-granddaughter of Ernest, and the daughter of Mariel -- Jane is thin and sort of carelessly sexy. She throws her clothes on in the morning and doesn't bother too much with hair or makeup, but is always pretty. She lives with a friend, Melissa (Stella Maeve) -- also sexy, but in a kind of stupid way -- and Melissa's thuggish boyfriend Mikey (James Ransone), who makes a living dealing drugs.

The plot begins when Jane hits some yard sales for stuff to decorate her room. She finds a thermos that she thinks will make a good vase for flowers. The grumpy old lady seller barks that there are no refunds. Later, Jane finds several wads of hundred-dollar bills stuffed into the bottom of the Thermos. Thus Jane isn't exactly a liar, but is given a moral conundrum. Should she take the money back?

She finds herself trying to reach out to the old lady, who we come to find out is called Sadie (Besedka Johnson). Oddly, all signs point to Jane getting to keep the money. The crusty, stubborn Sadie keeps trying to shoo Jane away. Later, when the two become closer, we learn that Sadie's late husband was a gambler and she has tons of money stashed away. Sadie never becomes lovable, in that cuddly Hollywood way, but rather remains slightly separate -- the generation gap is never fully crossed -- and human. What Jane finally does with the money is lovely and surprising, and the way that the movie ends is even more satisfying.

The way Starlet handles this plot with grace and intelligence is a surprise, but the movie has another surprise. It takes place in the world of porn. Both Jane and Melissa work as porn actresses, shooting little videos presumably for the internet. Unlike many movies about the porn industry, this one isn't shy and doesn't scrimp on details. It includes some footage from the set, where bored crew members sit around and do their jobs while actors are (realistically) getting it on. It even includes a couple of current porn stars, notably Asa Akira (who tells a joke) and Manuel Ferrara, who performs a scene with Jane.

(The filmmakers have wisely tried to keep this aspect of the movie out of the promotional materials, correctly hoping to avoid too much attention paid to what is essentially a minor part of the movie. Also, the movie is going out unrated, and should be viewed by adults only.)

It's admirable how fearless and how casual this entire subplot is, and how effectively it rounds out and helps to explain Jane's character. On the other hand, it's equally admirable how the friendship between Jane and Sadie avoids being cutesy. It's forever perched on awkward and cranky, but continues to grow in a unique way.

The movie is directed and co-written by Sean Baker, who has been around for a while and whose most notable credit is on the cult TV series "Greg the Bunny." (In one scene, a stoned Melissa watches the show on TV and mutters how stupid it is.) Baker opts for a kind of "indie" look for Starlet, with a roaming camera, overexposed, sunny lighting, and choppy editing, but it all seems to have a purpose. Rather than looking like every other indie movie, this style eventually comes together to create a very specific mood, a mood in which the story can unfold at its own pace.

Starlet does what low-budget movies do best: it creates some vivid characters that seem to exist in a specific, but constantly evolving universe. In other words, it lives and breathes. And it has also come up with a great find in Ms. Dree Hemingway. Hopefully she can continue to find parts this good.

By the way, the title actually refers to Jane's sweet little dog, who manages to curl up and fall asleep in just about every shot. Casting directors: remember this pooch.

Music Box Films has released a very nice Blu-ray; the sleepy, sunny textures of this film come across superbly. It includes a commentary track recorded by several members of the cast and crew, including director Baker and actress Hemingway. There are a bunch of little featurettes, running between 5 and 12 minutes each, and a trailer for this and other indie features.

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