Starlet tells the story of a porn actress who finds a stash of money hidden in a makeshift vase she buys at an elderly woman’s yard sale, then befriends the old lady out of guilt for not giving the money back. That’s the official synopsis, though the film’s greatest pleasures aren’t in the events that unfold, but in the camera’s ability to capture the characters’ exterior and internal spaces with delicacy and tremendous believability. Sadie (Besedka Johnson) is 85, Jane (Dree Hemingway) is 21. The former is a bingo-loving widow, the latter spends her days doing drugs and playing Xbox with her fellow porn-industry roommies. Refreshingly, director Sean Baker never uses the unusualness of their relationship, or Jane’s lifestyle, as a shortcut to shock, or drama. He doesn’t even grant himself the indulgency of close-ups very often, which must have been very tempting.
Hemingway sports the kind of worn-out face of extremely beautiful girls with extremely ugly histories: a Britney Spears face with cracks fading in and out like a pentimento. She suggests a ravaged Bardot, a bibelot exercising the banality of the body with a face without makeup, too busy being lost in her world without prospects, too stuck in its circular haze, to think of itself as something to be looked at when cameras aren’t on. And her face is sometimes older than Sadie’s. You recognize it from one of those gangbang porn scenes where the girl must be so cracked out of her mind, her eyes zombie-like, to be able to take the scores of men passing her around. And it’s to Baker’s credit that instead of exploiting the dramatic possibilities of Hemingway’s face by shooting it up close, thus turning it into a filmed face, he pays the face little attention, allowing it room to be an actual face that we catch glimpses of without ever quite staring at it.
There’s a limit to Starlet‘s understatedness though. The sequences that aren’t preoccupied with achieving much in the matter of plot are the most successful: the hissing of a teapot, the leaden frisson of being high and prospect-less in a group. But the film keeps going back to more predictable American tropes of narrative twists and revealed secrets. In the hands of a filmmaker with more of a European sensibility, Starlet would know not to seek drama in its plot because there’s enough in the situations it’s created. It’s here, when Starlet isn’t trying to be a conventional narrative, that we see something refreshing: gorgeous young female bodies whose objectification is so evident, so pragmatic, we can’t partake in it. They’re almost too objectified to serve their function as objects, parading around in boy shorts, working the strip pole in the living room (on top of Jane’s roommates’ coffee table), and being fucked on camera with the precision of a stop-motion puppet walk. The film works as a charming aesthetic exercise with its jerky camera and inadvertent cuts, as a contemplation on intergenerational female bonding. It also brings up broader themes such as the narcissism of any kind of friendship—the idea of a friend as a sort of function, friendship as a silent transaction of selfish needs in which we don’t get close to someone for “who they are,” but for whom they represent.