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Review: ‘Starlet’ shines as a study of companionship

Review: ‘Starlet’ shines as a study of companionship
Jane (Dree Hemingway) and Arash (Karren Karagulian) in “Stralet.”
(Courtesy of Music Box Films)

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.

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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.

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“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.

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