Sunday, December 16, 2012


I mentioned that I missed one film at the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival.  I ended up seeing that film at the Landmark Opera Plaza.

Starlet starring Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson; directed by Sean S. Baker; (2012) - Official Website

Interestingly, San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Ted Hope is one of the producers of Starlet.  I knew he was a film producer before taking the SFFS job but this was the first film where I noticed his name in the credits.

Although Starlet is set in the San Fernando porn industry, has one surprisingly explicit sex scene and features cameos by actual porn stars (even I have heard of Asa Akira), the film focuses on the relationship between young Jane (Dree Hemingway) and eldery Sadie (Besedka Johnson).  Jane makes her living as a porn actress.  It's a rather hardscrabble life as she has two roommates and drives an old car.  I take it Jane is new to the industry and a rising star.  She happens upon some money hidden in a thermos that she bought at a yard sale.  Unsure as to what to do, Jane attempts to return the money to the cantankerous Sadie.  Sadie's gruff demeanor and Jane's faltering ethics leave the issue of the money unstated.

Instead, Jane (who seems desperate for parental approval) gloms on to Sadie as a surrogate mother/grandmother.  She begins to drive her to the grocery store, the bingo parlor, etc.  Initially skeptical, Sadie eventually warms up to Jane.  As Jane's friendship with Sadie begins providing emotionally nourishing dividends, her relationship with her roommates take a turn for the worse.  Melissa (Stella Maeve in a nice performance) and Mikey (James Ransone) are also in the porn industry.  Melissa is an actress with a drug habit and questionable scruples.  Mikey is an actor/director/manager who seems to leech off the two women.

Increasingly aware of the toxic atmosphere at home and by extension, the porn industry in general, Jane clings to Sadie's companionship.  Indeed it appears the friendship means more to Jane than Sadie.  When Melissa reveals the found money to Sadie in a moment of pique, it appears that the relationship is kaput but it turns out that Sadie has her own secret.

The ending was a little bit of let down but the film thrives when Hemingway and Johnson appear together and any time Maeve is on screen.  Her Melissa is one sexy bitch in every sense of the phrase.  Jane's future is left vague and I had to wonder how long she will be able to count on the octogenrian's support but it certainly seems Jane benefits more from their friendship if only because she seems more damaged to start with.

Playing into many of the stereotypes of the porn industry, Jane has a vulnerability and loneliness which likely attracted her to porn.  Not a bad person as much as a confused person, Jane's uncertainty is common among young people.  Her particpation in porn gives it a certain tragic quality.  I believe Melissa is essentially similar to Jane but she copes with her vulnerability by taking drugs and having a loser boyfriend.  Jane recognizes this and strives to be something more than she is without necessarily giving up porn.  It's a tough row to hoe but the film doesn't show if she is successful.  It only shows the first step in the process.  Starlet is neutral to positive about the porn lifestyle.

Hemingway's Jane is very appealing in a "damsel in distress" sort of way.  Attractive, congenial and projecing a sense that she needs saving, she appeals to a large male demographic.  The titular starlet is actually Jane's male lap dog but the title also refers to Jane.

I enjoyed Starlet. It has many understated scenes between Jane & Sadie which are contrasted by the crass and outrageous scenes involving the porn world.  The film works best when it allows these two worlds to play out without a defined story arc being visible.  As the film moves to its conclusion, the scenes and drama seem forced until the conclusion which was out of step with what occurred before it.  Consdered as a whole, the film is very successful in telling the story at its own pace and allowing the three actresses to shine.

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