Review: Unlikable Supporting Characters and Drifting Plot Take the Shine Off ‘Starlet’

By  · Published on November 8th, 2012

Editor’s note: Starlet arrives in theaters this Friday, but we already saw it way back in March at SXSW. Why don’t you re-read our review from then, originally published on March 12, 2012?

There’s nothing quite like found money to bring out people’s true colors – and, in the case of Sean Baker’s Starlet, the character that emerges from lead character Jane is surprising to everyone around her, especially herself. Baker’s film centers on Jane (Dree Hemingway), a Florida transplant who now wiles away her days in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley doing, well, what is it that Jane does? The gorgeous Hemingway spends most of her time driving around with her dog (Starlet, even though he happens to be a boy), getting high with her terrible roommates (an appropriately screeching and unhinged Stella Maeve and her dirtbag boyfriend James Ransone), and wearing clothing so short that it nearly becomes its own plot point.

While it’s eventually revealed just what Jane does with her time and for her money, Starlet focuses on an undefined Jane in the film’s first half, a time period in which nothing much happen beyond the introduction of the film’s only major plot point, though that introduction takes less than five minutes. And though we do eventually get to know Jane more as the film plods on, it does not prove to be an ultimately rewarding experience.

Jane, sick of the blank-walled room she rents from Mikey and Melissa, spends a weekend day hitting various garage sales to procure her own furniture and decorations. At Sadie’s (Besedka Johnson) house, she purchases a large flowered Thermos that she’s bent on using as a vase. The crotchety older woman has no bones about telling Jane it is indeed a Thermos and that there are no refunds. But the last thing Sadie needs to hem about is giving Jane back her money, because once Jane has taken the vase home and filled it with water, rolls of hundred dollar bills pop out. What is Jane to do?

Starlet has been billed as the story of the unfolding cross-generational friendship between Jane and Sadie – and while their chemistry eventually comes together, the film takes far too long to get to the meat of their story. And, although their relationship hits some emotional beats (particularly later in the film), it’s still a pairing that reads as quite predictable, making Starlet frequently feel much too similar to other independent features of the same mold. Baker’s story and message is not an original or especially unique one, begging every other element of the film (especially performance) to rise above and stand out. The results of that are decidedly mixed.

Hemingway (of course, the daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Ernest) is still a somewhat green actress, but the parts of the film that work best are the moments when she is expected to inhabit Jane in a “real world” way. From her facial expressions down to her body language, Hemingway’s reactions to some of the unexpected people she meets and situations she finds herself in feel rooted in truth and honesty – particularly as it applies to her discovery of the money and her decision to attempt to give it back to Sadie. Paradoxically, however, these scenes are better than the portions of the film where is she clearly under less direction and has been asked to improvise her words and responses (which, unfortunately, make up the majority of the production), making the seemingly “natural” reactions of stronger sequences suddenly appear to be much more cunningly guided. Hemingway, however, has an obvious gift for acting and is very much a rising star to watch.

The film is also perhaps about twenty minutes or so too long, and though Baker’s choice to occasionally turn his focus back on Jane’s trashy roommates and skeezy boss makes sense (it’s much nicer to see Jane with Sadie than the rest of them, and let’s not forget it), they are unshaded characters and generally revolting to watch for any extended period of time. Starlet itself is a fine watch, and despite some inspired moments, it too feels unshaded and forgettable.

The Upside: An often-lovely performance from Dree Hemingway; brief bits of inspired cohesion between writing, directing, acting, theme, and aim.

The Downside: Unsympathetic and uninteresting supporting characters; a bloated runtime; an ultimately directionless plot that feels like a million other films of its same ilk.

On the Side: The film is Johnson’s very first feature.