When "Starlet," the new film from cinema-vérité expert Sean Baker, is at its best, it's deeply emotional and filled with under-stated brilliance. At its worst, it's boring and aimless. It's a mixed bag with "Starlet." But when it's good, it's very, very good.
Dree Hemingway (daughter of Mariel Hemingway) plays a young woman in Los Angeles getting started in the pornography business. But "Starlet" is not much interested in the pornography. The focus of the film is an odd friendship that the girl strikes up with a crusty, bitter 80-year-old woman, played superbly by first-time actress Besedka Johnson.
Johnson is so good that I wouldn't be surprised if she wins some Best Supporting Actress awards - or at least some nominations. I don't know how Baker does this. He finds untrained, natural actors everywhere he goes. It's one of his specialties.
Baker first began attracting attention in 2004 when he partnered with Shih-Ching Tsou to make "Take Out," a gritty examination of the army of Chinese men who bicycle around Manhattan delivering Chinese food for $2 tips. He followed that up with "Prince of Broadway," another hand-made movie with a cast of immigrants, this time from the Caribbean.
"Starlet" is not exactly cinema-vérité, but it does have something of a hand-made quality. The casting of Johnson, furthermore, a "real person" as opposed to a professional actor, gives the film that unique Baker touch. Some have described Baker as reminiscent of John Cassavetes. I can see the resemblance. But Baker has a long way to go in terms of story development if he wants to be anywhere near as good as Cassavetes.
Both "Take Out" and "Prince of Broadway" suffered terribly from under-development in the story department. Baker is the kind of filmmaker who believes that if a person looks interesting and very real, an audience will want to watch him/her walk down the street for 90 minutes. Not so. For most people, including most intelligent cinephiles, watching a unique person walk down the street remains engaging for about five minutes. The other 85 minutes must show the person involved in something that's interesting. The character's being in and of itself is not that intriguing. We need to see his being in action. And the action, furthermore, must be thought-provoking -- walking down the street is not interesting action.
Baker appears to have been working on this. "Starlet" is a step forward. There is more story in "Starlet" than in his previous two films combined. But there's still not enough. There are too many slack, repetitious moments in "Starlet," and there is too little revealed about the characters. Baker never gets inside his characters; he watches them from very far away. In a sense, he's more of a cinematographer than a filmmaker. He likes to watch his characters, but he doesn't seem to have much interest in what they have to say. When he writes dialogue, it's bare bones. In a Baker film, the dialogue is really beside the point. This makes his films more like appetizers than entrées. They always whet my appetite but not much more than that.
But there's no denying that "Starlet" has magical qualities. There are moments of truly stunning visual poetry. And its vision of these unique characters is deeply tender. I love how Baker finds humanity in the most unlikely places. When other artists are looking at the people who stand out and make an impression, Baker is noticing the guy who's delivering the take-out food, or the old crone playing bingo by herself to whom no one has spoken in years. I love that he directs his artistry toward these people. I just wish he penetrated inside their worlds more deeply.