Dree Hemingway, the lookalike daughter of Mariel Hemingway and the great-granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway, drifts through the early scenes of Starlet in a stoned haze of inertia where every day looks and feels more or less like the last. Hemingway makes her living in the sex trade, particularly as a porn actress, but that job doesn’t define her any more than working at a yoga studio or frozen-yogurt store might. It’s simply a way for an attractive young woman without many job skills to make a living, and Hemingway doesn’t seem particularly concerned about what the future might hold. She leads a rudderless existence before a strange, unexpected catalyst profoundly alters her directionless life.
The catalyst in question is a small fortune in rolled-up bills Hemingway finds inside a thermos she purchases at a rummage sale of a cranky old lady (Besedka Johnson). Hemingway doesn’t know what to do with her ill-gotten windfall any more than she knows what she wants to do with her life, but she repeatedly attempts to forge a connection with Johnson, over the older woman’s fevered objections. Johnson can’t understand why this sweet, spacey young woman is being unnecessarily nice to her. At one point, she even maces Hemingway when the younger woman attempts to give her a lift home. That’d be a deal-breaker for most potential friendships, especially ones this unlikely, but Hemingway soldiers ahead in spite of the older woman’s formidable defenses.
Starlet is refreshingly unsentimental in its depiction of both youth and age. Johnson isn’t a sweet old woman full of life lessons, or a carpe diem-embracing quirky grandma type; she’s angry, distrustful, and set in her ways, an ornery survivor more interested in living out her remaining years in relative peace than in making a new friend whose world and sensibility are completely foreign to her. Yet Hemingway’s underlying sweetness and resilience ultimately get under Johnson’s skin. Starlet is an unusually subtle, quiet character study—especially given the potentially salacious subject matter—that builds to a quietly powerful climax. Reduced to its broad outlines, Starlet feels like boilerplate Sundance fodder about intergenerational friendship and the humanity that unites us all, but writer-director Sean Baker (who co-created the cult TV comedy Greg The Bunny) affords potential caricatures time to breathe and live and grow in ways that feel both organic and earned.