TOTO MUSTN’T BE DESTROYED! Presents:
Review by Philip Perron
One of the delightful things about watching movies is finding directors of independent cinema that one day either become Hollywood success stories or gain mainstream critical admiration. Jon Watts, Taika Waititi, and Gareth Edwards are a few instances. They all did little horror or arthouse flicks and soon were discovered by-big time producers.
The recently released film, THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017), is another small film that’s getting great reviews and is being considered as an awards contender. The director, Sean Baker, may be the next big thing. He has been well-known for almost a decade because of his acclaim at film festivals. One of his movies, TANGERINE (2015), received critical acclaim from critics everywhere, but his film STARLET (2012) got a bit more notice than usual from general film audiences. STARLET had a lead actress, Dree Hemingway, who was well known already, specifically because of her famous family (she is the granddaughter of Ernest). With its 89% Rottentomatoes score, and its appearance on Netflix for a good year, STARLET’s word of mouth was a bit more prominent than most.
If there ever was an arthouse film, this is it. Jane (Dree Hemingway) is a beautiful twenty-something who seems to have no job or social life. She spends her days playing video games with her two roommates, lounging about her home, or driving around Southern California with her little dog, Starlet. One Saturday morning she decides to hit the local yard sales to find things to redecorate her bedroom with. Her travels include meeting a short-tempered elderly woman, Sadie (Besedka Johnson), who sells her an overly large and intricately-designed thermos that Jane plans to use as a vase. Taking it home, she shockingly discovers ten thousand dollars inside it. Her first action is to return the money to Sadie, but the woman slams the door in Jane’s face while stating no refunds. This begins Jane’s journey. Who is Sadie? What should Jane do now? What should she do with this money that doesn’t belong to her?
The curious aspect of this film is that a part of its notoriety is that it includes a bit of a shocking reveal midway. And the reveal isn’t just a surprise, but also a graphic display usually not seen in modern and critically-respected American films. But we’ll get to that in a moment. The main theme of the movie is really about the relationship of a young curious co-ed and an elderly woman who is all alone in the world. It’s about friendship, the emotional awakening of individuals, and the connection between people; the breaking of barriers between societal concepts of who should be friends with who.
There are many layers to this film. The most observable is the fact that Jane will go to any lengths to make some sort of amends with Sadie. Having failed to return the money, she instead decides to befriend the woman and “repay” Sadie in other ways. After her first attempt ends with a door slammed in her face, Jane’s next move includes shooing Sadie’s taxi for a trip to the grocery store away and becoming her “driver.” A rocky friendship is formed with various ups and downs. But no matter what happens, Jane isn’t one to give up. At the same time Sadie always leaves her mind open. She can see that her new relationship has made her life more rewarding, compared to what it was prior to having met this obstinate young woman.
Interestingly, the motives and back stories of each of them are very unclear throughout, Jane’s seeming a bit more obvious. Being an honest and good soul, she is dumbfounded about what to do with the $10,000 that mistakably has come her way. Plus being a bit bohemian, and also a bit adventurous, trying something new like befriending someone from another generation, another world, seems exciting and also rewarding to anyone who is generally good hearted.
Sadie, on the other hand, is grumpy and seems to feel the world is a place that gives nothing back but heartache. Her dislike of everything around her has caused her disillusionment, yet when someone unexpected treats her with affection, a little flame begins to burn inside, resulting in her having a new perspective on humanity. Both have parts of their back stories eventually revealed. And whether one considers them momentous or just plain logical, neither is the whole of their identity, leaving the viewer to decide why both are the people they are. Yet, in the end, the two not only land where they want to in life, they now unexpectedly have each other. It’s a “feel good” movie, even if a melancholy permeates much of the movie.
Though we never learn anything about Jane’s family or school life, we do get a very unexpected reveal at the midpoint of the movie. Jane is also known as Tess. She, along with her roommates, is an adult film performer. STARLET includes an actual sex scene using adult film actress Zoe Voss as the body double for Bree Hemingway. This was an interesting choice to show in such a film, since it would obviously limit where it would play and who would see it. But it may make the film audience more a participant. They may now judge the Jane/Tess character in a different way. Curiously, she is the same girl she had been prior to the scene, but unlike before, she’s less distant and more expressively alert. The cheerfulness that she seeks with her relationship with Sadie comes out when she’s with “her people,” leaving one to believe that the connection she has with co-workers around the film set may be the only time she is fully comfortable, or more specifically, happy.
Peculiarly, it is never determined whether Sadie knows or learns about Jane’s work. But this is inconsequential. One can gather Sadie would most likely stop, think about it for a moment, and then shrug it off. Jane turns out to be much more important to her than just another person to have disdain for. Instead, for Sadie, Jane is many other things: a figurative daughter, a friend, or more allegorically, an angel from heaven. For much of the film, Sadie shows her friendship for the younger woman with sarcasm, irritability, and passive-aggressive behavior. But Jane shrugs it off and even ignores it, whether intentionally or not. And though the movie is mostly shown from the perspective of Jane, we can see Sadie becoming more intrigued by the younger woman as the movie progresses.
At points, the relationship between the two is stressed. Early, Sadie sprays mace in Jane’s eyes when she thinks the young woman’s sudden attention to her may be something unsavory. Yet, days later, Sadie is the one that reinitiates the relationship with a phone call and an apology. Though still a bit hesitant, whether because of pride or somberness, she is able overcome her fears and rekindle the friendship, even if she is cautious. This short yet significant scene is a huge growth moment for the character.
Another moment of anxiety in their friendship happens late in the film. Unbeknownst to Sadie, the Los Angeles civic arena is having an adult film and trade convention and Jane is representing a film company that is attending. So, Jane asks Sadie to watch Starlet for the day. What originally is a calm and relaxing afternoon gardening in the yard turns into a harrowing experience as Starlet wanders off and appears to be lost. After a day of searching, Starlet is found and Sadie begins to wonder if the work that a friendship requires is worth the effort.
The movie is more than just the relationship and growth of the two leads, and their bond. In some ways the two may be representations of each and every one of us. As individuals, not many of us can be as J.D. Salinger had been, and figuratively (or literally) wall ourselves away from the world. Humanity is a social animal. Though our fellow employees, classmates, and neighbors may present social opportunities, many have different views or traditions unlike our own. They may be shy, damaged, or have personal demons that make them appear rude or unaccommodating.
Friendship is something that calls for more than cooperation. It requires understanding. And, by the end of STARLET, it has revealed things about Sadie and her life that not only give Jane a more appreciation of the older woman, but it also gives a new meaning to Jane’s own life and her place in the world, even if it is contained only within the lives of the two protagonists.
STARLET is an absolutely beautiful movie. There is little wonder why director Sean Baker is now gaining more renown from just being a quaint arthouse director. And while Dree Hemingway hasn’t become the big Hollywood star her performance and charisma here projects, she’s still working prominently in independent cinema.
Besedka Johnson, the actress who plays Sadie, unfortunately passed away shortly after the movie was released. It was her only film role. She was discovered by a crew member while working out at a local gym. Not surprisingly, like many young women, she had moved from the Midwest to Hollywood in her twenties to pursue acting. She did model and eventually owned her own boutique dress shop in Los Angeles, yet oddly her primary dream came true at the age of eighty-seven. One wonders if having not been given the opportunity to become a “starlet” sixty years earlier was worked into her performance. But either way, it was a maraschino cherry on top of a long life. And in ways, the movie unintentionally has a further meaning as a result. Life sometimes does work out, even if it seems too late.
© Copyright 2018 by Philip Perron