To an outsider, such as myself, I suspect Los Angeles is often seen as a vapid sprawl, overflowing with beautiful but brainless women skimpily dressed in clingy clothes who all come standardly equipped with sunglasses and a shopping bag. But, as with anywhere, appearances can deceive and you never know when you might find that very stereotype unlocking the real her off the beaten path.
The heroine of "Starlet is Jane (Dree Hemingway, energetically unpretentious), a 21 year old who constantly curses not for effect but offhand, living out of suitcases in a Formica room in a Formica house in the San Fernando Valley with Mikey (James Ransone) and Melissa (Stella Maeve) who are content to wile away their days with weed and video games. Yearning to spruce up her dreary 10 x 10 quarters, Jane gathers up her omnipresent chihuahua - a purposely less charismatic "Beginners'" Arthur - and tracks down deals at yard sales. This includes a thermos she plans to transform into a vase bought from an ornery elder, Sadie (Besedka Johnson), at a house overrun with shrubbery, suggesting she simply wishes it would swallow her up.
Except it turns out the thermos is packed with rolled-up, rubber-banded hundred bills totaling ten grand. Jane goes to return it. Sadie tells her "no refunds" and shuts the door. Jane goes on a shopping spree. Guilt intrudes. Jane, decidedly unsubtly, worms her way into the standoffish existence of Sadie, who is at first quite resistant and then, eventually, just merely reluctant. Jane drives her to the store. They play Bingo. They talk, but never get much beyond the surface. Behavior and choices made are what fill in the gaps instead.
Edited with a great deal of trendy quick cuts, though also often pausing to revel in particular sights and sounds, director/editor Sean Baker swaths the majority of the picture in that warm California sun, glinting on the camera and suggesting how this relationship, however fragile and primitive it may be, brings a strange glow to each woman's life. Secrets, as they must be, are harbored, but are in no hurry to be revealed and are divulged plainly. For example, even though Jane is shown to be involved in the more sordid side of Hollywood, it is not presented or included just for shock and awe (even though several of the images may elicit shock and awe) but as another one of her mixed-up pieces.
"Starlet" hides nothing from the audience specifically because the playing field between the audience and characters is level. We learn what we learn when we would learn it, not a moment sooner or later. The inevitable admittance of the basis of Jane and Sadie's relationship dangerously stands on the cusp of formula only to stop short. By this point, the characters have too much trust in each other and the film, bless its marvelous soul, has too much trust in us.
And the final twist is in actuality not a twist at all, but the moment when Sadie finally chooses to open the proverbial door and allow Jane all the way in. The coda, a simple but absolutely stunning shot, shows Jane's hair whipping in the wind and hiding her face, as if to say when she re-emerges from behind those bangs she will no longer be who she was.
This is one of the very best movies of the year.