Behold the San Fernando Valley, as presented by Starlet director Sean Baker. The narcissistic teen queens of the ’80s — as if! — have faded into the background. In their place: aimless ladies who spend their days idly waiting for work. Here, shots are de-saturated to near colorlessness, stripping away the hints of L.A.’s sheen. If you want glamour, head to the other side of the hill.
Into this realm saunters 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway), a Florida transplant trying to rise to the top of the nudie-pic biz. Baker tries to use her career as a shocker, but the effect doesn’t land: Jane comes across as a shallow Paris Hilton clone. What proves surprising is the tenderness resting beyond Jane’s blond dye job, slutty couture garb and prized Chihuahua sidekick (the titular Starlet). Still, Hemingway masterfully hides all hints of her character’s depth until Jane strikes up a friendship with octogenarian Sadie (Besedka Johnson). It’s a contrived relationship, sparked when Jane purchases a Thermos that hides $10K at Sadie’s yard sale. Feeling guilty, but unwilling to return the moolah, Jane stalks her way into Sadie’s life. It’s creepy, and the grouchy widow is naturally skeptical before she eventually warms up.
Parts of the ensuing buddy comedy feel derivative or absurd, as do encounters with Jane’s dysfunctional roommates and her adult-film-exec boss. Fresh, though, is Baker’s nonjudgmental approach. Much like its characters, Starlet simply drifts around the Valley, dividing itself from morality and watching guarded souls interact. Meanwhile, both Hemingway and Johnson hide these women’s vulnerability in a way that still signals its existence. As they move through their distinct milieus — Sadie’s verdant subdivision and the nondescript locale of Jane’s porn shoots — their unexpected connection roots them in a world where it’s often best to disengage.