One of the year's most arresting, heartfelt indies, Sean Baker's "Starlet" trains the flat, harsh San Fernando Valley sun on a pair of checked-out lives testing new interpersonal waters: a fizzy young porn actress and the cranky octogenarian widow she befriends.
Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel, exudes airy curiosity as young Jane, whose discovery of a stash of cash in a thermos purchased from a yard sale drives her to acts of charity toward its original owner, suburban shut-in Sadie (newcomer Besedka Johnson, whose feisty, affecting turn earned her Special Jury Recognition at SXSW this year).
The set-up isn't as sentimental as it sounds, thanks to the flinty performances — including Stella Maeve as a drug-addled, meltdown-prone colleague of Jane's — and Baker's confident, observant direction.
The backbone of "Starlet" is its environmental naturalism, whether capturing the clock-punching vibe of an adult film shoot, or the quotidian existence of Sadie's grocery shopping and bingo nights.
Cinematographer Radium Cheung's work — intimate yet relaxed — is also a standout, teasing a wide array of atmospheric qualities from a seemingly washed-out L.A.-daylight palette.
Jane and Sadie are each dreamers with secrets, but "Starlet" isn't concerned with analysis or life lessons — it's a character study about faith in connectedness, with an unforced love for cross-generational companionship that's special indeed.
"Starlet." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. At Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.