'Starlet': Actress brings a solid pedigree to a solid indie ★★★

'Starlet'

'Starlet' (December 5, 2012)

In the Van Nuys, Calif.-set "Starlet," a success at this year's South by Southwest film festival, the young actress Dree Hemingway brings a sure comic touch (without shtick) to a satisfying picture. Now 25, she's the daughter of Mariel Hemingway and the great-granddaughter of Ernest. She comes from photogenic stock.

In director/co-writer Sean Baker's new film she plays Jane, a transplant from Florida who, like thousands before her, has arrived in the greater Los Angeles area with dreams and a few undefined plans. Also, in the many-tentacled adult film industry, she has a way of paying her share of the rent in the meantime, however long "meantime" is destined to continue.

One day at a yard sale, in search of home furnishings, Jane picks up an old thermos. The widow who sells it to her, played by 85-year-old newbie Besedka Johnson, doesn't realize her late husband used the canister to stash $10,000 in tightly rolled bills. After finding the money Jane tries to return it to Sadie, but Sadie slams the door in her face. Guided by equal parts guilt, curiosity and sympathy, the young woman initiates a friendship with Sadie that becomes the heart of this winningly executed indie.

It's an odd film in some ways. The porn milieu is detailed in ways at once sparing, in terms of actual screen time, and bluntly explicit. The odd-couple relationship guiding the story has its familiarities.

But where it counts, "Starlet" — which takes its title from Jane's dog's name — allows its characters room to maneuver within the potential cliches. Mainly it's a showcase for Hemingway, who keeps us guessing about Jane's motives, as well as her relative and moral intelligence. Johnson serves as a flinty oppositional force. The movie is taken up largely by Jane's taking Sadie around on errands and visits — to her beloved bingo games, to her late husband's grave site. We know more or less where "Starlet" is going, yet when we arrive, we're glad for having made the acquaintance of these two.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Starlet' -- 3 stars
No MPAA rating
(explicit sex, some language)
Running time: 1:44
Opens: Friday

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