"Starlet," which premiered this week at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, is a drama of self-discovery and self-acceptance fueled by two discoveries: Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel Hemingway, who gives a performance of flaky charm and tender sensitivity in her first leading role, and 85-year-old Besedka Johnson, who in her first-ever acting role is tough but lovable as a woman who didn't expect to make any more friends in life.
Hemingway plays Jane, a 21-year-old struggling to get by on the fringes of the San Fernando Valley. When she buys something at a yard sale held by Sadie (Johnson), the two quarrel over whether it's a Thermos or a vase. When Jane gets the object home, she discovers a substantial amount of cash inside it. Unsure of what to do, she insinuates herself into Sadie's life, helping her with errands and the like. As the two reveal more of themselves to each other, their relationship deepens.
The film was directed and co-written by Sean Baker, and, like his previous films, "Prince of Broadway" and "Take Out," there is an air of the ethnographic film about "Starlet." But rather than explore the immigrant experience as he did before, this time Baker is looking at the lives of two women who might not normally be given the space to take center stage.
"I think with 'Starlet," with 'Prince,' and even 'Take Out,' they were worlds that I was interested in and wanted to explore," he said. "I was right on the fringe of those worlds."
While working on his short-lived MTV comedy show "Warren the Ape," Baker would cast porn stars in small roles, he got to know a few of them through the production. He was taken by how lonely, bored and nomadic they seemed, living decidedly unglamorous lives. He thought one of these women in her off hours would make for a compelling film. When he combined this idea with a story he had about some money found at a yard sale, the treatment for "Starlet" was born.
For the 24-year-old Hemingway, who has had success as a fashion and photography model -- "I consider myself an actress and a model. I'm like a walking cliche," she said jokingly -- she wasn't concerned with whether people might assume the off-beat naturalism of her performance was just her being herself.
"Everything in acting for me is about how you bring pieces of yourself and then you apply it to the character," she said. "I think for Jane I wanted her to come across as kind of, she's been thrown into this world but she's kind of trying to figure it out. She's not sold on anything quite yet, and is just kind of going with it."
It is difficult to talk about the story without giving away too much. Baker carefully modulates how and when information is revealed, so viewers can get to know the characters without instantly judging them.
"We intentionally have a lot of reveals in the film," Baker said, "because it's all about breaking these preconceived notions you might bring. It's about breaking stereotypes, people going past first impressions. The reveals were intentional."
The film features one major scene of explicit sex, a behind-the-scenes look at the workaday world of a porn shoot. The scene would likely push the film, which is looking for distribution, into NC-17 territory.
"I'm not concerned about it," Baker said. "We obviously know this film will be either unrated or NC-17. There's no way around it. This is how I see it -- the film is for adults, made for adults. The state of independent film now anyway, you're going to play a few theaters in the major cities and then do well on [video on demand]. If anything I could see this only enhancing that. This might even be a film people would be more comfortable watching at home, even though I would love people to see it on the big screen."
-- Mark Olsen in Austin, Texas
Photo: Dree Hemingway and Stella Maeve in "Starlet." Credit: South by Southwest Film Festival