SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ It's that time of year again: THE RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in London! On now.. See you there!

Saturday, 17 November 2012

'STARLET' (2012) ~ a refreshingly naughty and cantankerous buddy movie starring 25-year-old Dree Hemingway, 86-year-old Besedka Johnson and a cute Chihuahua with a gender crisis!

*This film contains some spoilers hidden in the San Fernando Valley sunshine ~ please watch before reading!*

Despite all the extremes on display in this sweetly provocative film (that had a UK premier at the 2012 London Film Festival), the whole deal had the show stolen by the cute little Chihuahua that the film's director - Sean Baker, brought to the stage for his introduction, making a joke as he did so about not really being "an arty farty film director type who brings his dog along with him wherever he goes - honest!" and that this pooch was "there for a reason".

The reason being that this little dog is one of the stars of the film - the 'Starlet' herself. And this Chihuahua goes through hell - halfway through the movie we find out he's a boy, not the girl everyone thinks s/he is. Remember 'The Crying Game'? Yep, it's the canine version of that one. And the pooch's owner? Only the director himself! So expect absolute favouritism when it comes to this young star (if not quite the casting couch - although couch, for sleep, still good).

You may well get a few other surprises as you watch this modernly magical movie (and oh boy - there's a really big one to come!). I couldn't possibly tell you more, as this one's a real 'event' movie. You will be shocked - maybe (and film censors may be as well, although having watched the brilliant Serbian film 'Clip' at the London Film Festival the night before the screening of 'Starlet', I may as well have been watching a Disney movie with this one).

Rather like the unexpected turn of events in the middle of 'From Dusk Till Dawn', or the outrageous fate of the thief shortly after the start of 'Psycho', be ready to get a shock in the solitude and serenity of the languid lifestyles and in the middle of all the stylishly hip Dazed and Confused/ i-D magazine-like visuals and preening on display here.

This is a film that plays with convention and does so with ease and style. If it's a little bit designery at times, it makes up for this with occasional grime; stylish grime though it undoubtedly still is. There is possibly too much reliance on Vogue magazine-ish centrespread lounging around of skimpily-dressed beautiful girls in hazy washed-out lighting (beautiful and clearly seductive these shots are all the same). This undoubtedly effective style overwhelms the film a little but it's the grittier, poetic visuals such as the sequence where the two female leads chat under a pylon-riddled skyline, or the bingo hall that - to many - has become more of a home than the actual place they go back to after the last ball is called (or especially  the location that seems to exist almost outside of the movie - a lonely, extensive area of untended graves exposed to the high San Fernando winds and free of visitors except for the old lady whose life we encounter) that stay in the head far more determinedly than the cuter (but delicious, don't get me wrong) and sweeter candy on offer.

To be fair, there's probably a deliberate contrast in the film between lifestyles that allow such indulgence (dazzling soft skin in photographic - sometimes even pornographic - luxury) and those that don't (age-worn wrinkled skin in plain grey hallways). I'm not really complaining about the look of the film at any point as it's an increasingly colour-saturated, glaring, magical place we get shifted into from a director with a clear and playful style (and the sight of the beautiful lead of 'Starlet' - Dree Hemingway prancing around in her thigh-high white socks with their red and blue stripes at the top, is wonderfully provocative and not exactly a sight too sore on the eyes!).


Despite the controversy this film has generated with the inclusion of one scene (controversy partly whipped up by Sean Baker himself who stated in the Q&A after the screening that he wanted his characters to feel authentic but admitted there was also a certain amount of playfulness involved; to deliberately shock or at least surprise us all big time!) 'Starlet' is still an experience as sweet as freshly poured sugar, though not at all mawkish - sugar laced with lashings of regret.

There's sex in the movie too (perhaps no surprise that one of the director's favourite films is 1988's fleetingly taboo-busting 'The Idiots'), but - like 'Clip', it's not exactly erotic, just a part of life. The people portrayed in the film live that life; any portrayal of this is entirely justified and properly honest; and (in a way) far more decent than, say, another hundredth shade of literary grey.
Most of all, despite the also copious drug-taking and general decadence  on offer (Baker makes the point that this part isn't fiction - it's based on real life; what he has seen, so deal with it, if that shocks you) the script is sharply wistful; joyous and heartbreaking in equal measure. 'Starlet' is a beautiful, often astonishing movie that I sort of fell in love with or found myself chatted up by. I want to know where it all ends, but as it is, at the end of the film we get uncertainty of sorts - a kind of uncertain beginning for the deliciously wry and razor sharp-tongued stars of the film  (who conjure up a flawlessly observed companionship between very old and fairly young).

The serene, sexy, achingly stylish Dree Hemingway (yes; daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Ernest!) provides a wistful and flirtily quirky performance as free spirit Jane, house sharing with her unpredictable, drug-zapped feisty friend Melissa (played by another 'seriously on the up' young actress; Stella Maeve) and Mikey (a sleazy tour de force from James Ransone, soon to be seen in the Spike Lee remake of 'Oldboy').

Mikey is a man on a mission who clearly has more than just a vague interest in getting under the covers with these two girls - it's a financial concern under the glare of a mirror ball. When Mikey comes into money - not his own money, mind - he blows it all on refurbishing the house they all live in with trashy tack.

Stella Maeve's Melissa is a walking thunderstorm in hotpants and high heels. According to director Sean Baker - Maeve did her (way too effective) best to get into character by developing quite a rough side, especially in the moment she slaps lover Mikey hard on the back in bed followed by a noticeable look of surprise on the face of actor James Ransone (the director confirms; the force of the slap was a real shock for Ransome, much like the young actor Lucas Pittaway in 2011's 'Snowtown' - who is hit hard against a car windscreen by his murdering mentor in that film - told the audience at a Q&A in London last year that he was equally surprised at the harder-than-expected strike he received, despite the director of Snowtown's look of clear unease at the telling of that story in front of him!). 

'Starlet' is set in California's San Fernando Valley; home to small dogs and porn stars (and a representative of this profession is included in the cast of 'Starlet' - yes, it's only Asa Akira, star of such films as 'Sleazy Riders' and 'L for London' as herself!). 

In a quite thrilling sequence in 'Starlet', Jane visits an Adult Expo and gets entangled with all kinds of bitching and back-slapping among all the horny stands and stalls; Hemingway here, joining in with the porn star vibe by wearing the skimpiest of outfits and carrying the designer-slutty look off with grace and style (having been a model before turning to acting; clearly likely inbred with that rare ability to make skimpy outfits appear about as innocent as a pair of Mickey Mouse pyjamas). 
Director Sean Baker is equally stylish-looking when he appears at the film's Q&A (sadly without Dree Hemingway but with a little dog to make up for it - gee thanks!). An engaging and good-humoured speaker quite prepared to be self-depreciating, he tells us (regarding the porn valley setting of San Fernando) that his work on the TV series (and cult show) 'Warren the Ape' before making 'Starlet' (a series that featured porn stars such as Lana Croft from 'Memoirs of a Modern Day Geisha' and 'The Big in the Beautiful') had inspired him to use real life porn stars Lily Labeau and Asa Akira in 'Starlet'. Some sequences demanded this - and Dree Hemingway apparently fully approved of the decision. Another adult actress - Ashley Blue (real name Oriana Small, the author of industry revealing 'Girlvert') was a consultant on the movie.

As far as Baker is concerned, and despite some heckling to the contrary from a member of the audience throughout the Q&A; the adult movie stars written into the film were as true to life - especially when it came to recreational drugs (sorry, Baker says, but it's often a reality of this way of life!) and the owning of cute little dogs (yes, nearly every porn starlet has one of these too apparently!) - as possible. 

This is a man who clearly knows and cares about the lives of these brightly-lit actresses carving out a close-up career for themselves that only ends for the day on the shout for a money shot; knows about their lifestyles, their characters and treats them, and talks about them - with respect (making the point that, for a lot of the time, there is only the waiting around for a scene call - what else is there to do, but indulge themselves a little while waiting?). It's also the case, Baker says, that many adult stars have their own sharp-suited male 'looker-after' on the sidelines calling the shots; sticking up for their investment, suggesting new shoots, fitting cameras to every wall, mirrors to every ceiling - feeding their demands when it suits them.    

Of course, this film doesn't really linger on the performers from porn valley that much; the camera's gaze only really cares about Dree Hemingway's character and the camera adores this young actress; often shot in dreamlike soft focus and lilting pastel colours, you can't help but fall in love with this young woman's kookiness and zany lifestyle - or her big bonkers heart. She's the Woody Allen heroine that Woody Allen would have killed for if Diane Keaton hadn't been around for Annie Hall.
The plot of 'Starlet' (memorable, caustic, witty and pleasingly simple - but absolutely effective) is based on a real life event from the director's childhood. As a boy he remembers a friend of his father's finding a stash of money in an old watering can. The friend asked his father what the legal considerations for such a find were and debated whether he should keep the money or return it to the stall owner (we were never told what moral conclusion the friend eventually reached). The tall but true story gestated and formed the basis of a long-held short film idea before reaching the big screen in 'Starlet'.
The film starts out quietly with Jane buying a battered vase from a cranky old lady (Besedka Johnson as Sadie) at a garage sale. Sadie crossly tells her customer that the item is a flask, not the vase that Jane describes it as. Sadie eventually gives up on the girl - "No refunds", she tells her, and it should be that these two women never meet again as Jane leaves the stall with the rather ugly flask under her arm.
Back home, Jane discovers the flask is stuffed with wads of notes, and the film follows her subsequent guilt at various times for not returning the money (having now spent at least some of this on items for the house and clothing). The tormented (well - sort of) girl's subsequent visit to the old stallholder's home is to make up for keeping the money - so instead of returning what she has spent (and she can't afford to anyway), Jane decides to spoil the bemused old lady she bought it from with love and unreciprocated offers of friendship; and some hilariously unwanted good deeds!
Besedka Johnson (a sprightly 86-year-old) as Sadie is a quiet riot as the grumpy old woman with a hidden heart of gold that rarely shines. Sadie's surprise at being given constant lifts home from Jane (and this determined young and underdressed girl always seems to be lingering around her) leads the old lady to suspect that her designer stalker may be out to harm her in some way, especially when Jane starts turning up at her house, dog Starlet under one arm - wanting to chat and carry her shopping into the kitchen and then chat some more. And just never leave! 

Young Jane also develops a sudden love of bingo (and coincidentally - though of course; not really coincidentally at all) always manages to end up sitting right next to Sadie at the local bingo hall, turning up to sessions in skimpy shorts and thigh highs - standing out like a floppy in a San Fernando porno.

Besedka Johnson has never acted before (and director Sean Baker tells us that he hasn't heard of any plans for Besedka to act again), although we do hear that she had always wanted to do so. Besedka was discovered exercising in a local YMCA by the executive producer of the film; Shih-Ching Tsou and asked if she wanted to be in a movie (you'd have thought she would have called the police at this point, like she did to Jane, but fortunately no).

Dree Hemingway's casting was perhaps a gamble of sorts - she had more of a reputation as a model until the director discovered she had recently taken acting lessons and was serious about moving into the profession, but Besedka Johnson was coming into the movie as an even more (totally) unknown quantity. It didn't matter - her performance as Sadie in 'Starlet' is simply, astoundingly, brilliant and reaches (if there's any justice in the world) award-winning levels of deep-rooted mistrust, crankiness and unashamed loneliness bathed with big dollops of warm, optimistic heart.

Hemingway as the fall-in-loveable, fearsomely optimistic, certainly flawed (but almost sort of trustworthy) new best friend; Jane, is also terrific - developing a genuinely well-rounded and believable character so you forget (as you do with her elderly co-star) that this is someone playing a role. But this is Besedka Johnson's moment; her finest hour and 44 minutes. Maybe her only chance to show what she can do (what she could have done, given the chance) after a lifetime of waiting for such a moment as this - and guess what? I think she knows it.

The director reveals later that a well known actress was also considered for the role of Sadie but her fee ended up being too high and she also had a cat sanctuary to look after (hey - probably as good a reason as any, and the smell of cat near a perky Chihuahua may not have mixed as well as Dree and Besedka did!). I'm glad Besedka got the role instead - it's a rare moment of perfect casting.

At the end of the movie, a huge sadness being hidden gets revealed and there's a real reason behind Sadie's cantankerousness but it's not really a plot device (in that it - deliberately - by this point, doesn't matter). Jane's secret life is still not revealed to Sadie by the end of the film, it doesn't seem. It doesn't alter anything; maybe makes it all better, that a relationship was forged away from any kind of judging and preconceptions - it makes the ending we are given even more perfect and the new life of Sadie and Jane (even if just for a few weeks) all the sweeter.

'Starlet' then, was an outstanding entry in the 2012 BFI London Film Festival. It's a work of subtle sensuality, sex and stark emotional moments; a flirtatious fumble with human frailty and mistakes made under a pretty pink umbrella constantly twirling in the rays of the midday sun (this film is often shot shades-needingly bright and the sky always gorgeously blue or the mirrored ball always turning - even the bad things that happen here are filtered through with colour, like the flailing sweaty bodies in a single set porno in the heart of San Fernando's Porn Valley that glisten under an audience of flash bulbs and an army of studio lighting).
The soundtrack to 'Starlet' is fresh, youthful, cool and playful; clearly perfect for all the sun-drenched and hazy cinematography - but it's the performances that steal the show. This is a screen partnership that creates genuine sparks of friendship; when you watch the adventures of Jane and Sadie (adventures crying out for a sequel) you may think a little more about your life and the lives of others by the time the film ends. Because, after all, whatever age we are and whatever we do, however different the lives we lead - it's still one world we live on, at the same time, that we all get a share in and that has to connect us somehow. Sometimes, for some people - an excuse for friendship needs no other reason at all. 

Oh, I've just realised that an apology needs to be made. The real star - the little 'Starlet' of the show - is of course that little dog (real name Boonee, according to his very own Twitter page) and spends most of the Q&A licking the hand, not of his owner but of a man sat in the front row. This pampered pooch is effortlessly cute (and also, it has to be said, mostly curled up and sleeping his way through his first major film role) but also provides the film's one sequence of utter hopelessness when (being looked after by a newly-cheerful Sadie), he decides to go walkabout and spoil the party for everyone. Sadie pacing around the streets desperately looking for the missing Starlet is a pivotal moment that re-establishes and flattens the guidelines and all the good vibes we are perhaps too easily getting used to.

The message in 'Starlet' is that life is good, and life is very special - but not always. Sometimes it's probably better being a dog in the San Fernando Valley than it is being a person.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer/ 2012

Images from 'Starlet' are the copyright of Music Box Films unless stated.

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