Los Angeles is unlike any other city in the world. Fellow Angelenos know that living here is a unique experience, like it or not. We’ve seen it on film so many times, but the glamorous Beverly Hills homes and sunny beaches are only part of the story. Starlet is one of those films that is true to much more common LA experiences, shot in an intimate, cinema verite approach.
The film focuses on two familiar Angeleno types. The first is Jane (Dree Hemingway, yes, she’s related to that Hemingway), a blond, transplanted valley girl, whose free time is spent “clubbing” and “laying out.” She lives with her friend Melissa, Melissa’s drug-dealing, Xbox obsessed boyfriend Mikey, and her fashion accessory dog, Starlet. As the film progresses, you might wonder how she can afford her leisurely (though by no means extravagant) lifestyle. Things start to make sense when it comes to light (with surprisingly graphic certainty) that she is an adult film actress.
This all sounds like the sensational stuff of an MTV reality show. And it might feel that way, if the film’s approach wasn’t what it is – a raw, naturalistic treatment of a real LA lifestyle. The filmmakers also choose to depict the lives of porn stars free of judgment – it doesn’t glorify them or shame them. The film only works to show what these lives look like for the starlets who live them. TV has done much to glamorize this lifestyle, but people like Jane still drive beat-up Saturns, still live in apartments with no furniture, and still shop at Jon’s. It’s an intriguing disconnect to see the way that she’s treated like a superstar on set, or at a Triple-X convention, but she still goes to yard sales to get new furniture.
At one of these yard sales, Jane meets Sadie (Besedka Johnson), the second familiar type. Sadie lives alone in a house in the valley with an overgrown yard. She doesn’t have a car (or license) so she takes a taxi to the grocery store. She plays bingo on Saturday nights. Nothing about her appearance or lifestyle says “LA” to most of America, but she represents a huge percentage of the population. She is old, secluded, and set in her ways, but is constantly surrounded by the young and hip. In meeting Jane, she is forced to come face to face with this demographic.
The film is also about secrets. Jane and Sadie meet when Jane purchases a thermos from Sadie’s yard sale. When she takes it home, Jane finds money inside it – lots of money. She spends some of it right off the bat, but then feels like she has to go back. Sadie, used to seclusion, repeatedly repels Jane’s attempts to connect with her, until the money has almost become an afterthought. She didn’t expect to, but Jane eventually becomes genuinely invested in Sadie. The “connecting with someone although there was initially a secret ulterior motive” has become threadbare cinematic trope by this point, but the performances are genuine enough to overcome it.
Jane doesn’t talk to Sadie about the money, or her profession. Sadie keeps her cards close to her chest as well, though we may not know it at first. But the way they deal with these secrets goes a long way to show something about their friendship. Jane’s only other friend, Melissa, serves as a foil for Sadie. They are polar opposites, and the idea that Jane could find a love for both says a lot about her true personality. While Melissa might seem the one closer to Jane, the film gradually turns the tables. Particularly in the finale, we see the difference between Jane’s two friends in the way that they react to secrets. The deeper friendship isn’t the one where you expect something from your friend; it’s the one where you can forgive each other for not meeting expectations.
Writer/director Sean Baker’s filmmaking style suits this story well, allowing for an intimacy that would otherwise be lost. This is also a film that benefits from casting relatively unknown stars (Johnson was “discovered” at a local YMCA, having never acted in her 86 years in Los Angeles). They may not even be particularly strong actors, but they’re perfectly suited to these roles. You may get the feel that both of these people are like this in real life, and maybe they are.
Starlet takes a realistic look at LA, and an unlikely friendship that might arise between two of its denizens. Hopefully, it says something not just about people in LA, but people everywhere. That mutually honest investments into the lives of others will never be easy, but will always be rewarding.