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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 10.03.12] drama

Over the last few years director Sean Baker has emerged as a talent to watch. His films are intimate, giving us an inside look not only into the lives of individuals but also the worlds that they inhabit. In many respects, Starlet is very much a Sean Baker film: it tells a story of a young woman named Jane, capturing the world that she inhabits with intimate detail, but the film also marks a very clear change for the director whose movies to date have taken place in New York and been fairly straight forward narratives about interesting people in interesting places. Starlet breaks the mould, offering a movie that is very much a result of Baker's previous projects in that it shares many of the same approaches to storytelling but also displays a growth in the filmmaker's visual approach and the way in which the narrative unfolds.

Whereas Baker's previous films have been fairly straight forward narratives about people in a very specific time and place, Starlet feels timeless, a haunting story of a young woman making a life for herself in the San Fernando Valley. Jane, played with beautiful understated control by relative newcomer Dree Hemingway, spends her days getting high and hanging out with her friend Melissa and her partner Mikey. None of them seem to work but its suggested Mikey is an occasional director who deals drugs on the side to make money. Needing a change, Jane spends a day collecting furniture and nick knacks at local yard sales. She buys an old thermos from a prickly old lady that turns out to hold a stash of money which Jane tries, without luck, to return.

Guilty at taking such a large sum of money from an old lady, that alone speaks volumes about Jane's character, Jane sets out to make some sort of amends. In a very amusing series of events, Jane ends up as Sadie's driver, taking the old lady to the grocery store and to run whatever other errands she needs but what starts as Jane's attempt to give back soon turns into a genuine relationship between two very dissimilar women, both alone, who find in each other the love and support both have been missing.

There's much more to Baker's film than simply a tale of an unlikely friendship. Though it's wonderful to watch Sadie and Jane discover each other, their time apart reveals much more about them as individuals and why the unlikely pair get along so well. They're very different individuals but they're also similar. They share a drive for self preservation, they're used to being on their own and once they've made a commitment, they don't back down, even when faced with the toughest opposition. In a brilliant closing scene, we see just how devoted the two have become to each other and in a wordless scene, Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch choose, as they do throughout most of the film, to allow the actors to carry the story and in that final moment, when Jane realizes that Sadie has shared her deepest secret, the story is amazingly poignant.

Though the guerrilla style shooting that was so prominent in Baker's other films is largely replaced by wide angle lingering shots, the handheld in-the-moment shots are still occasionally present, capturing both women in their natural habitat. It's one of Baker's trademarks, his ability to intertwine his characters with the people and places in which they live and it comes through in Starlet, which lives and breathes the Valley and the people that call it home.

Starlet is a little gem which explores friendship and how complicated it can be and which, along the way, dispels a few pre-conceptions about an often misunderstood and misrepresented industry. It's an unexpected collection of story threads which are beautifully connected in a memorable package. In his short career, Sean Baker has deliverd two outstanding films but if there ever was a calling card for the director, this is it and I can't wait to see where he goes from here.

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