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Kinky to a fault

Sean Baker's Starlet never progresses past its clever plot twists

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Sean Baker's independent feature Starlet, continuing this week at the Music Box, is constructed around an ingenious plot twist that transforms the movie from a precious character study into something significantly darker. I can't discuss the movie in any depth without giving the twist away (you might not want to read this until after you've seen the movie), and this dilemma points to my frustration with the film. Baker is a confident storyteller and his players (who range from professionals to first-time actors) turn in good, soulful work. Yet the central surprise so overwhelms the rest of the movie that it distracts from these virtues—or, worse yet, reduces them to window dressing.

The movie begins as an uneventful drama about familiar lower-middle-class types. Jane (Dree Hemingway) is a sweet but dippy 18-year-old living in a Los Angeles townhome with her friend Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Melissa's older boyfriend, Mikey (James Ransone). Baker shows the three smoking pot and playing video games in their underwear, and sometimes arguing about money; apparently none of them holds down a job. They recall the overgrown children of Larry Clark's Bully or Ken Park, and like his characters, they seem innocent even though their behavior is aimless and hedonistic. When Jane and Melissa get stoned, they cuddle like sisters and engage in soul-searching conversations they're too inarticulate to complete; Mikey, a big-talking drug dealer, suggests an excitable boy, particularly when he's playing video games.

One day Jane decides to redecorate her room and visits several yard sales in search of knickknacks. After buying a vintage thermos from a standoffish old widow named Sadie (Besedka Johnson, striking in her film debut), she discovers that it contains about $10,000 in cash. Will Jane return the money or keep it for herself? As she weighs her decision, she starts visiting the old woman—who doesn't realize she's lost a large sum of money—and the two gradually become companions. Calling them friends would be going too far: Sadie is a solitary grouch (the only thing in life she enjoys is playing bingo once a week at a church), and Jane seems too emotionally stunted to empathize with someone so unlike herself. "What do you do for fun?" she asks Sadie during their first long conversation. "Like, I like to go out with my friends, go clubbing . . ."

This setup promises a sentimental story: Jane will take pity on Sadie, return the money, and edge toward adulthood. But Baker has something else in mind. During an afternoon outing with Sadie, Jane receives a call from Melissa, who's in tears because their mutual employer has refused to issue her current paycheck. Because her car has been repossessed, Melissa asks Jane for a ride to the office so she can confront their boss. As it turns out, though, their "office" is a porn studio and the girls are both sex workers.

This revelation marks the movie's most impressive sequence, an extended scene in real time as Melissa makes her galvanic appearance at the office. In one fell swoop the scene vividly shows how the porn outfit operates, introduces several new characters, and reveals that, no matter how alike Jane and Melissa seemed in their early scenes, Melissa is far less mature (she even forgets to show up for her video shoots). Until this point, moments of unexpected behavior have raised vague questions about the characters (Mikey controls all of Melissa's financial decisions; Jane goes to the hospital for a blood test), but the plot twist pulls them into focus. The scene is all the more powerful for seeming to come out of nowhere.

It also complicates our understanding of Jane and Sadie's relationship, revealing that Jane is starting to advance in the porn industry and may not need the old woman's cash. But Baker, shrewd storyteller that he is, leaves her motives undefined. For the remaining hour Starlet plays out as a psychological mystery, urging us to wonder whether Jane is sincerely interested in becoming Sadie's friend or is putting on an act to take further advantage of her. And this raises another, deeper question: To what extent has Jane internalized the exploitative nature of her job?

By withholding the information that Jane, Melissa, and Mikey work in porn, Baker lets us get to know them as people rather than social outcasts or objectified bodies. This strategy conveys a commendable moral sophistication, but it feels like a trick. The film's first half take place over at least a week; surely Melissa and Jane would have spoken about their jobs in this time. Baker also reveals later that Mikey shoots his own porn videos in Jane's bedroom; wouldn't that have some impact on her daily life? Despite the air of documentary-style naturalism, Starlet feels closer in spirit to M. Night Shyamalan.

On top of that, Baker isn't a very interesting realist. The early passages of Starlet feel authentic by default, since he carefully avoids presenting anything unusual. (This problem is hardly unique to him: substituting banality for social observation has become a chronic flaw of U.S. independent filmmaking.) The movie conjures some sense of place in its images of the San Fernando Valley, but there's no underlying sense of discovery. The yard sales where Jane shops, the rundown church where Sadie plays bingo, and the cheap offices of the porn studio look like actual locations. Yet Baker tends to present a few choice details and then move on, rarely attempting a unified social portrait.

In the second half of Starlet, Baker widens his perspective to consider the Internet porn industry, and the movie becomes more engrossing. Its cultural observations are similar to Steven Soderbergh's in The Girlfriend Experience: the American sex industry is safer than ever for workers, yet the regulations that keep them safe have an insidious way of turning all outward expressions of pleasure into commodities, divorcing them from actual feeling. Perhaps there really isn't anything to these kids aside from their work—which makes Jane's interest in Sadie seem all the more poignant.

Unfortunately Baker can't seem to let these observations speak for themselves. The second half of Starlet contains several more plot twists, as if Baker just can't stop. A scene at a porn expo reveals that Jane, contrary to her go-with-the-flow personality, is quite levelheaded in her professional decisions. In another scene Mikey surprises his roommates by transforming their living room into a mock strip club, so the girls can practice their pole-dancing (Melissa has mentioned earlier that he's been saving up money, but she doesn't know why.) The final shot suggests that Sadie has a secret life too. All these moments are dramatically effective in context, yet in hindsight they feel arbitrary because Baker could have presented them earlier. It's all too fitting that a movie about pornography should leave the viewer feeling used.

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