Festival gem: Starlet

A flighty young woman befriends a lonely pensioner to ease her own guilty conscience in this highlight from day three of the BFI London Film Festival.

Samuel Wigley
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Dree Hemingway (daughter of Mariel, great-granddaughter of Ernest) makes an impressive mark as an airy ‘valley girl’ in this finely-drawn character piece set in Los Angeles’ suburban San Fernando Valley.

What’s it about?

Young and beautiful, Jane (Hemingway) lives a flighty, ethereal existence, cohabiting with her wastrel housemates and her cherished chihuahua ‘Starlet’. After she finds $10,000 in a flask she bought at a garage sale, twinges of compunction lead her to track down the elderly lady who sold her the item, forcing her friendship upon the irascible pensioner in an ill-defined attempt to ease her own conscience.

Who made it?

Starlet is indie filmmaker Sean Baker’s first feature set on the west coast. His two previous dramas, Take Out (2004) and Prince of Broadway (2008), both showed a concern for the realities of immigrant life in New York. A graduate of NYU film school, Baker is also co-creator of the US TV sitcom Greg the Bunny, starring Seth Green.

What’s special about it?

Shot in a gauzy, washed-out colour palette by Radium Cheung, Starlet is an evocative portrait of an oddly weightless life. Though Baker doesn’t push too hard against the vacuous ‘valley girl’ stereotype, he makes us empathise with Jane and see the world from her dreamy, Ray-Ban’d perspective. Besedka Johnson, new to acting, is exceptional as the lonely octogenarian reluctantly sucked into Jane’s ditzy whirlwind.

What critics are saying

Peter Debruge, Variety:

Though named after a party girl’s pet Chihuahua, Starlet could just as easily describe the two exceptional first-timers making their debuts in this brittle, beautifully understated San Fernando Valley character study […] Though the potential to psychoanalyze the characters exists, the film’s approach is far more conducive to straightforward identification. Here, so much depends on Hemingway, who lures the viewer into the naive, girlish daze through which Jane sees the world. […] Starlet doesn’t glamorize so much as block out everything Jane doesn’t want to see, ultimately arriving at an emotional awakening for which she wasn’t prepared.

Eric Kohn, indiewire.com:

Focused on a pair of women in California’s San Fernando Valley, Starlet lacks the same emotional consistency of Baker’s earlier films, but nevertheless succeeds as a compelling look at the vapidity of day-to-day life and the universal desire to escape it. […] Using the same anthropological approach he brought to his previous films, Baker inhabits Jane’s lifestyle by stripping away its glamorous elements to peer at the reality beneath. […] The movie never makes obvious its trajectory, instead wandering through a series of events in search of a revelation much like Jane herself.

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