Saturday, December 22, 2012

Starlet [2012]

MPAA (would be R)  Roger Ebert (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Starlet (directed and cowritten by Sean Baker along with Chris Bergogh) is a relatively simple "indie" film about the development of a unlikely friendship between two seemingly "insignificant" / "lost soul" women living in Los Angeles' San Fernando Vally, one named Jane (played by Dree Hemmingway) aged 19 and a recent transplant apparently from "somewhere East," the other an elderly widow and long time resident with a house and a well-tended garden, named Sadie (played by Besedka Johnson). 

We meet Jane (and her pet chihuahua) crashed in the rented home of an apparently recently acquired friend-of-sorts named Melissa (played by Stella Maeve) and Melissa's boyfriend/half-pimp Mickey (named James Ransone).  Mickey and Melissa had an extra room. Jane apparently had no particular place to stay.  M&M apparently could use the extra money.  So ... there ... When Jane eventually wakes-up / gets dressed and asks Melissa if she could decorate her room, she's told that she can't paint the walls because "Mickey may want to film in there sometime ..." but sure that she could buy some nicknacks.  "But don't waste your money buying 'new' at Ikea.  Go to yard-sales instead..."  And that's what Jane, chihuahua in her lap, then purse, then lap again, does ...

One of the yard-sales that she stops at is that being run by Sadie.  Jane sees what she thinks is an urn: "Is this something you put dead people in?"  "No it's not an urn, it's a thermos." "Looks like a vase to me." "Well it's a thermos." "I'm going to put plants in it." "I don't care what you do with it, but remember no refunds."  And so Jane buys a one dollar thermos that she's going to make into a vase.

When she gets home with thermos/vase and some flowers that she's going to put in it, she finds that she has trouble putting the flowers in.  When she dumps-out the contents of this thermos/vase, she finds that inside were several roles of $100 bills -- $5,000 worth.  She asks her friend Melissa what she should do if she "found money that she's not sure that the person who lost the money knew even she had."  Melissa asks how much money she's talking about.  Jane answers ... "about $5,000."  Melissa tells her that she should try to give it back.

So that is what Jane tries to do.  She tries to return the vase/thermos.  Except that Sadie is adamant "NO REFUNDS."  What then to do?

Jane seems to have a lot of time.  Yes, she does spend some of the money on herself, buying a better used car and some random (and not particularly high end) clothes.

But she feels guilty.  So she stakes-out Sadie's house and follows her when she calls a taxi and goes to the supermarket.  There, while Sadie is in the supermarket, Jane pays the taxi-driver his fee and waits for Sadie to finish shopping.  When Sadie comes out of the store and looks confused because her taxi (that she had instructed to stay) seems to have driven away, Jane reintroduces herself, "Hi, gee what a surprise ... aren't you the lady that I bought that thermos from?"  "Yes." Sadie looks around for the taxi.  "Are you looking for someone?" "For my taxi." "Where? There's none here.  Maybe he drove off.  Maybe I could give you a ride." (yes the dialogue in the film is often about that simple ;-).  Sadie looks at Jane with natural distrust and initially refuses.  But her home is too far away to walk to with her groceries in hand.  So she finally accepts Jane's offer.

On the way home Jane plies her for information.  "What do you do for fun?" "Fun?  I'm old.  I don't do much for fun.  I play bingo at St. Ann's every week.  That's what I do for fun."  Guess where Jane shows up the next time it's Bingo night at St. Ann's?   What would you do if you suddenly had a somewhat nondescript young woman apparently suddenly stalking you, especially if you were a bit on the older side?  Sadie screams and calls for the cops.

But Jane doesn't seem to have any particular record and seems innocent/sincere enough.  So the cops don't even take her in.  And Sadie's response was more reflexive ("That's what you do if you're old and someone young suddenly seems to be unduly interested in you.")  Since Jane no longer seemed to be an obvious threat to her, Sadie decides to let Jane into her life a bit.  In particular, she asks Jane to take her to the cemetery to the grave of her husband one day.  In the course of the conversation, Jane finds that Sadie's husband had been something of a gambler, and that Sadie, though never rich, felt that her husband had left her with enough money to be comfortable.  (Could this also explain that vase full of $100 bills? ...)  But Sadie's also getting older, and living alone (and tending her garden) is, despite her protests to the contrary, becoming harder.

The film proceeds from there.  And one of the nice aspects of the film is that it remains "feeling real."  The two don't become "best friends."  Throughout the film, Sadie keeps a distance.  Further, we find what we always probably suspected: Jane has "all that time" for a reason.  She's a prostitute, well, "in porn," which when one is honest about it, is basically the same thing (okay the immediate "client list" is much more selective but the audience becomes arguably infinitely larger and it's all done with money in mind).

Now Jane's not heavily into this work.  She's not heavily into anything.  But getting filmed having sex with other good looking porn stars is how she's been making her money.  (The film makes it clear that this is what Jane does for a living and even follows her to a "shoot" one day.  However, it does not "go to town" with it.  The shots are taken in such a way that the audience knows exactly what's going on, without actually showing a few very brief shots of nudity).  And at some point, Sadie does ask Jane if she has a boyfriend and after Jane answers that her work doesn't "really allow it," Sadie looks at her and responds knowingly: "Well you do seem to have a lot of time..."

 How does this movie resolve itself?  I'm not going to say ;-).   But while it should be clear by now that it is obviously not for minors, it is a gentle story.  And we do come to understand why both characters did come to choose to become friends.

Now why review a movie about arguably a prostitute?  Well, nothing is new under the sun.  A generation ago, the film that made actress Julia Roberts' career was Pretty Woman where she played ... a prostitute.  And then from the time of Rahab the Harlot who helped the Israelites take Jericho during the Conquest of the Promised Land [Joshua 2:1] (and is one of four women, all with rather "scandalous backgrounds" who are found in Jesus' geneology [Matthew 1:1-25] proclaimed each year at the 1st Vigil Mass for Christmas), the Bible truthful as it is, is matter of fact about prostitution:  It exists, it is always considered sinful but prostitutes themselves (like other seemingly obvious sinners) are often presented with compassion.  Jesus himself was accused of cavorting with "tax collectors and prostitutes."

So this is a gentle movie that reminds us that all of us (including the people we don't particularly understand ... or even like) are more than simply our failings or sins.

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