Watching Sean Baker’s film Starlet with an audience is an interesting experience.
The film tells the story of Jane, a young woman who finds a significant amount of money hidden in a thermos she found at a yard sale. She makes a half-hearted attempt to return the money to Sadie, the crotchety old lady she bought it from, but ultimately decides to keep the money.
But she’s can’t help but to be drawn in to Sadie’s life, feeling that she has a moral obligation towards her. What follows is a story of two people, divided by generations, forming a relationship and bonding in a heartwarming way.
This may sound a bit too sickly-sweet - the film even draws its title from Jane’s adorable dog - but Starlet has many different reveals that both deepen the story and the characters that inhabit it.
These reveals could possibly even make an audience turn on the film, and at a point I was certain the people around me had checked out. But the real magic of Starlet is how fully realized, well written and performed the characters are and how the film refuses to judge them for their actions. These elements that are brought forth could have been handled in an exploitative or negative way, but the film captures a perfect tone.
It was therefore a real pleasure to watch the Q&A with the films writer and director Sean Baker, its star Dree Hemingway, the producer Blake Ashman, its executive producer/costume designer Shih-Ching Tsou and the Director of Photography Radium Cheung.
Much of the focus of the questions from the audience had to do with a significant reveal thirty minutes into the story, which will not be discussed here for the sake of those who have yet to see the film.
But a great deal of attention was also spent on actress Besedka Johnson, who plays the elderly Sadie. She was discovered in a YMCA gym by Tsou, who thought she would be great for the part. Johnson hadn’t done any acting, but had dreamt of being a performer since the age of 15.
She never commented on any of the film's more risqué elements, but did mention to the director that it included a lot of pot-smoking.
Another interesting fact which was revealed was that the film never really had a fully written screenplay, rather a 70-page “scriptment.” The actors would improvise much of their dialogue around scenes set up in the script. In some cases they would even interact with real people and non-actors, who then had to sign a disclosure agreement allowing the filmmakers to use them in Starlet.
When asked how Hemingway got on board for the project, she confessed to the audience that she hadn’t actually auditioned for the role, rather had a Skype conversation with Baker where she performed in character as Jane.
As for Starlet's visual look, cinematographer Cheung wanted the film to have a naturalistic feel which would capture the specific quality of light in its setting, the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. The film radiates heat and has a deep orange quality which gives it a stylistic edge in comparison to other low budget independent features.
Although Starlet may keep some of its twists and turns hidden, it exposes its beating heart from the opening moments. It’s a film which has immense love for its characters and wants the audience to go through a genuine journey with them.
[Ari Gunnar Þorsteinsson, 10 | 8 | 2012]