Sean Baker’s Starlet granted me the most unanticipated delight in a film since David O. Russell’s I ♥ Huckabees ten years ago, though while Huckabee’s film left me giddy and existentially perplexed, Baker’s Starlet left me grounded with a rediscovered faith in the potency of benevolence.
Gently upending my expectations at every turn, even with the identity of its titular character, Starlet stands as my new go-to for inspiration in kindness, patience, and belief that even the crankiest and outwardly fucked-up people can have kind hearts and deserve respect, but sometimes a great measure of determination and perseverance are required to peel back (and comprehend) a thick shell of resistance and distrust.
Starlet looks like a hazy SoCal dream – thanks to Radium Cheung‘s camera work and filming with anamorphic lenses. (I probably haven’t enjoyed simply looking at a film so much since Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz.) At times Starlet feels dreamlike as well, the story meandering about, unfolding languorously along with its characters.
Although he doesn’t work with movie stars, Sean Baker may actually be more Robert Altman than anything else. The improvisation he welcomes from his mostly unknown actors adds a dimension of verité that even Altman seldom achieved, perhaps due to Baker’s limited budget and also because of the freshness the two central performers bring to their roles. Dree Hemingway, a sylph with legs of wonder, and senior novice Besedka Johnson, battle-worn and brittle but not quite broken, play the main characters who dance around each other tentatively, distrustfully, anxiously, longingly, and lovingly.
Sean Baker’s earlier Prince of Broadway shares its spirit with Starlet, placing a protagonist in a position of choosing whether or not to assume or reject a role of responsibility and caring. In this film, however, the gender and ages flip: a man must decide how long he will care for a baby, who may or may not be his biological son, after the child is deposited into his arms without warning or explanation.
The protagonists of both films do not jump to the forefront of my mind as seeking out a role as caregiver. In Prince of Broadway, the main character Lucky, played by first-time screen actor Prince Adu, who draws on his life experience for the role, makes his way as a small-time hustler of knock-off designer shoes and bags, spending his off-time smoking weed and hooking up with his girlfriend. He’s barely scraping by on his own but making the most of his scrapes.
Unlike the lolling L.A. of Starlet, Prince of Broadway mirrors its protagonist’s NYC life. Shot guerrilla style, the camera is the hustler, moving with urgency on the sidewalk, an eye on everything at once, scanning for both opportunity and trouble.
This film also feels more improvised than Starlet, probably because the actors’ life experiences mirrored their characters more closely than Sean Baker’s, a fact that the director capitalizes on to catch free-flowing dialogue (and in Prince Adu’s case, plenty of monologue) that sounds real, not stilted or assigned. The cast of mostly first-time actors know more than their parts; they know their characters’ lives inside out.
Also notable: most of the characters are immigrants or nuyorican, and most of them are hustling one way or another, finding or failing in the American Dream. Their lives, mired in poverty and sometimes dysfunction, never look easy, and whatever joy they have feels palpably transient, as if the next gust of winter wind could wipe away whatever stability they are clinging to – in Lucky’s case, a carload full of knock-off shoes.
Which is why, I figure, in the end what they cling to is one another, especially Lucky and Prince. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat when the paternity results arrived; I think my faith in Lucky had already been established.
By the conclusion of Starlet, however, I was almost holding my breath, not out of suspense or dread, but from hope. I really couldn’t gauge how things would turn out, and even when the film tied itself up, the ending wasn’t on my list of possibilities.
Starlet gave me hope and Prince of Broadway gave me faith in character. Maybe this is what I need at this point in my life. I have three recent German and French films that have been idling on my to-do list, all highly recommended and with some gentle pressure from a friend to view. I have little doubt that they will captivate my attention, but I also suspect they will spill over with misanthropy and cynicism, two qualities wonderfully absent from Sean Baker’s two films. Next up: his 2004 collaboration with Shih-Ching Tsou, Take Out. I’m saving it for a down day. Even if it’s sad, I’ll be looking for that hope and faith.
NOTE: Sean Baker’s top ten films of all time.