Blu-ray Review: Brilliantly Acted ‘Starlet’ Portrays Beauty of Unlikely Bond

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CHICAGO – Besedka Johnson was 85 years old when she was discovered at a YMCA. After devoting her life to astrology, the genial woman was suddenly brought to the attention of indie filmmakers intrigued by her vintage movie star features. At 86, she delivered a tour-de-force film debut in Sean Baker’s marvelous drama, “Starlet.” And at 87, she passed away.

The extraordinary tale of Johnson’s life brings an even greater level of depth and poignance to Baker’s already sublime picture, which debuted at SXSW last year before receiving a very limited theatrical run. This pristine home video release will hopefully play a role in getting Baker’s film the audience it deserves. Not only is it one of the most accomplished independent films of 2012—fully deserving of its Robert Altman Award at the Indie Spirit ceremony—it’s also one of the most emotionally resonant. Blu-ray Rating: 5.0/5.0
Blu-ray Rating: 5.0/5.0

Dree Hemingway is both hilariously self-involved and touchingly generous as Jane, a 21-year-old aspiring actress who shares a San Fernando apartment with a pothead couple (played by James Ransone and a fearlessly unhinged Stella Maeve). At first Jane appears to be the sort of aimless blonde ditz that would’ve fatally gotten on Robert De Niro’s nerves in “Jackie Brown.” Yet beneath her seemingly careless exterior is an alienated soul yearning for a maternal connection. So when she discovers an enormous stash of money hidden within a thermos she purchased at a garage sale, Jane sets out to find its former owner, a cantankerous elder named Sadie (Johnson). Instead of giving her back the money, Jane makes repeated efforts to befriend Sadie, initially in an attempt to see if she indeed needs the money or not. But there’s a great deal more to the mutual warmth that grows between these two women, both loners secretly desiring to fill a cavernous void in their personal life. The unspoken tension in the prolonged silences between Jane and Sadie are deliciously nuanced by both actresses, who provide several laugh-out-loud instances of odd couple awkwardness. Baker’s background in anarchic farces such as “Greg the Bunny” is apparent in his sharp comic instincts, which brings a refreshing off-beat vibrance to scenes that could’ve easily turned sentimental.

Starlet was released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 7th, 2013.
Starlet was released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 7th, 2013.
Photo credit: Music Box Films

Some viewers have criticized the “twist” that occurs about midway through the film, and it could easily repel many prudish viewers from the screen. Yet I didn’t feel myself jerked around since everything leading up to the film’s one notoriously graphic sequence, which single-handedly warrants the “For Mature Audiences Only” disclaimer, logically paves the way for it. [Spoiler Alert] Jane’s participation in porno flicks is neither demonized nor endorsed, though it is reflective of the people who’ve entered that industry in order to make up for the part of themselves that is missing. What’s missing from Jane’s life is never articulated, but it’s acutely present in Hemingway’s face as she finds herself inexplicably drawn to the one person who normally wouldn’t give her the time of day. The script co-authored by Baker and Chris Bergoch subverts expectations every time it threatens to become formulaic, while Radium Cheung’s cinematography avoids sun-kissed romanticism in favor of a bleached-out grit that creates its own rugged brand of beauty. At the heart of “Starlet,” however, is the captivating performance by Johnson as a curmudgeon whose resignation to a life of solitude is utterly blindsided by the aggressive presence of newfound potential. If anyone ever seemed destined to live just long enough to achieve cinematic immortality, it would indeed be her.
“Starlet” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), and is accompanied by an excellent, hugely informative array of special features. The audio commentary track compiles the insights of various cast and crew members, and is hosted by Baker, who discusses how he utilized guerilla filmmaking techniques in order to enhance his picture’s sense of realism. Instead of having the opening credits unfold on a blank yellow wall, reflecting the present emptiness of its “plain Jane” heroine’s life, they were originally supposed to run during a montage in which Hemingway visited actual garage sales (much of the footage was kept in the film). Adult film actress Zoe Voss was Hemingway’s body double during the porno film shoot. She performed her scenes with actor Manuel Ferrara for the first part of the shooting day before Hemingway was brought in for reaction shots devoid of nudity (which was largely blurred in the final cut). The resulting scene is so seamless, it’s flat-out galvanizing, which is the effect Baker had intended. Instead of inviting audience judgment of Jane’s character early on, he wanted viewers to identify with her as a person before they learned of her profession. The disc’s numerous featurettes skillfully combine solid press interviews with behind-the-scenes footage, including an audition tape displaying undeniable proof that Johnson was a natural right from the start.

‘Starlet’ is released by Music Box Films and stars Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, Stella Maeve, James Ransone, Karren Karagulian and Boonee. It was written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch and directed by Sean Baker. It was released on May 7th, 2013. It is not rated. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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