Set in the deep recesses of the San Fernando Valley, the film “Starlet” explores an unlikely friendship between a twentysomething girl and an eightysomething woman. After young Jane (Dree Hemingway) buys an old thermos at a yard sale — she thinks it will make a nice vase — she discovers a large amount of cash inside it.
Rather than return the money, she begins to insert herself into the life of the woman who sold it to her, offering the elderly Sadie (Besedka Johnson) rides to the market or going with her to bingo. Mutually skeptical of each other at first, they each come to be exactly what the other needs.
A sly, surprising look at friendship and self-discovery, directed and co-written by Sean Baker, the film plays the AFI Fest on Monday and opens in Los Angeles on Friday.
“Starlet” is being released unrated with an explicit scene in which Jane shoots a hard-core sex scene for a pornographic film. Yet even as the film explores the mundane elements of the workaday lifestyle around adult entertainment, that other film industry on the flip side of the Hollywood Hills, that world remains its backdrop and not its main focus. For its nonjudgmental attitude toward the adult industry, “Starlet” might best be described as porn-neutral.
“There’s a lot of negativity and tragedy that comes from that world, but it wasn’t an avoidance of that. The fact is we already know that,” Baker said recently in Los Angeles. “What was important about the story was the bonding, the connection, it wasn’t about what Jane decided to do with how she makes money.”
Baker’s two previous feature films were slice-of-life looks at unseen corners of life in New York City, “Take Out” and “Prince of Broadway,” both of which dealt with the experience of immigrants. The origins of “Starlet” are from when Baker came to Los Angeles to work on the short-lived MTV comedy “Warren the Ape.” After using porn actresses in small parts on the show he fell into their social world and observed their everyday lives.
“I actually saw a side of their lives you don’t normally talk about,” said Baker. “The boredom and monotony, and it just seemed like such a job to them. Their lives were as unglamorous as all the rest of us.”
The film has breakout performances from Hemingway and Johnson. Hemingway, 24, is the daughter of actress Mariel Hemingway (who starred in the film “Star 80,” a harrowing look at the life and death of Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten) and already has a successful career as a fashion and photography model.
“The whole reason I got into acting was because of my mother, ‘Manhattan’ [in which Mariel Hemingway starred] and this and that,” said Hemingway, “because she is so real, and there’s little weird nuances that she does, and there is something kind of awkward about it. And something amazing. I loved that, and that’s how real people are.”
Hemingway in fact so fully inhabits Jane, exuding a disarming lack of guile, that it would be easy for audiences to assume she must be the same sort of a flaky free spirit, that she isn’t so much acting as just being herself.
Her director says that would be a mistake.
“I know that Dree is definitely not Jane,” said Baker. “If anything proves she’s acting, it’s just in the fact you never for a second feel she is delivering lines. I think she would get into the scenes and get so in touch with the character that people wonder if it’s just Dree.”
The film was shot in late summer of last year, costing around $250,000 to complete. In putting the film together Baker considered various casting permutations, including using a real adult actress for the part of Jane, trying to cast Tippi Hedren as Sadie, then even considering Hedren’s granddaughter as Jane for the stunt casting appeal.
Johnson, now 87, has never acted in a film before and was discovered at a Los Angeles YWCA gym by Shih-Ching Tsou, executive producer and costume designer on the film.
“I thought it has got to be a great big joke,” said Johnson of her initial response on being approached to appear in a film. However, “When you’re this old, it’s like let’s just go along with it and see what happens.”
For a film invested in realness, the inclusion of an explicit sex scene should not be a total surprise. What is a surprise is that it is the most constructed scene in the film, as according to Baker the sequence required more planning than anything else he has ever shot. He used clips from real porn films as a guide for how certain shots should look and to aid the seamless intercutting between shots of Hemingway and shots of her body double, adult film actress Zoe Voss.
“A lot of people don’t realize that I have a body double,” said Hemingway, adding that her own boyfriend was unsure of the difference when he first saw the scene. “Obviously, I want it to be posted when the movie starts, ‘Body double! Not Dree!’”