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AFI Fest 2012: “Starlet”

I’m tempted to say that the title of the movie Starlet is too cute by half. Yes, the movie is about a young woman in Los Angeles trying to make a name for herself in showbiz… but check this out: it’s actually her dog that’s named “Starlet”! Also, the dog is male. So he’s symbolic of grafting artificial facades onto reality, or something. But is the movie about the dog? Not really. Except that when you look back on it, the dog serves as an extraordinarily convenient plot device. Need the drama to advance? Have the dog do something out of character. But then, being a gender-confused dog, name-wise, maybe the point is that being “out of character” is its character. This could be over-thinking the whole thing. Bottom line: the canine is a plot device, but not the protagonist.

Official descriptions of the film note that Jane (Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel) is an actress, but they don’t say precisely what kind – while a late revelation, it’s sorta key to the plot, but, well… maybe you can guess from what I’ve already written. We’ll just say that this is another case of labels versus reality.

Jane lives in a house with fellow actress Melissa (Stella Maeve) and her boyfriend, both of whom are whiny, annoying and controlling – Jane’s room gets hijacked for movie shoots with little notice, and is not to be too personalized. When Jane suggests Ikea furniture, Melissa suggests that yard sales are cheaper, and so it is that Jane ends up with a large thermos that its previous owner, the 80-something Sadie (Besedka Johnson) is all cranky about (think “No, just candy, Ned! Ninety dollars!”).

But there’s a hidden bonus: the thermos turns out to contain several rolls of hundred-dollar bills. Now, if that were me finding them, I’d sit on that for a while. Seen too many movies where people who find money spend it all, then have their lives threatened by whoever it was that lost the cash. But Jane’s 21, and has seen less movies than I have, so she goes shopping, buying Starlet a bejeweled collar and herself several nice outfits. What wadded cash remains, she hides in a tall boot in her closet. It would totally be out of character for her nice, docile dog to ever mess with it there, right? (Remember what I said about plot devices.)

Though it never seems to occur to Jane that she might, say, have drug money on her hands (and thankfully the movie does not go that hackneyed route either), she does feel guilty, and as such begins to stalk Sadie, at one point getting rid of a cab so she can give the old lady a ride home. Hilariously, this modern Miss Daisy responds with mace before her inevitable softening around the edges. Over the course of several meetings, it becomes clear that Sadie is unaware of the money loss, and in fact, has more than she knows what to do with. Whatever has turned her into a cranky recluse, it isn’t poverty.

Similar stories have been told onscreen before: Jacques Thelemaque’s The Dogwalker featured the bonding of damaged women with a similar age gap, and as the title suggests, employed the use of dogs. And director Sean Baker has done at least one version of the unlikely bonding drama before, in the excellent Prince of Broadway, about a hustler stuck with a baby. What makes Starlet stronger is the exceptional cinematography work by former gaffer Radium Cheung, which lends even the ugly scenes a fairytale quality, and the solid lead performances. I imagine there are lots of talented senior actors who never got their big break for one reason or another, so really it shouldn’t be that surprising when one turns in something great, but Johnson certainly resembles that remark. Maeve is outstanding in her willingness to come off as shallow, neurotic, dependent and unlikable as her character really would be, while Hemingway, who must play it nicer than reality to make us like her at all, proves a compelling onscreen presence.

There’s more I’m not saying, and perhaps you can glean it from the trailer if you know what you’re looking for. I’ll just add that unlike so many deconstructions of the Hollywood dream that show the darkness beneath, Starlet does that and still lets us keep dreaming in the best way. You could argue that’s dishonest, and maybe there can be a sequel where Jane’s approaching forty and things suck for her. Until then, we can bask in her youthful optimism, and it’s nice to be reminded of that.

Starlet is currently playing in limited release. If you missed it at AFI, it’s actually worth paying for.

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