All art requires at least a touch of fantasy, but pornography is made of little else. Like sausage, legislation, and all sort of other things, nothing will put you off of it faster than seeing it made. The fantasy dispelled, what remains is a product, packaged and sold. You are reminded that the bodies on screen are attached to real people, and what you get may have little resemblance to what you see on the surface. But, as Sean Baker reminds us in Starlet, this is true for far more than just porn actresses.
Baker approaches pornography with remarkable equanimity. It would be easy to write a moralizing story calling out all sorts of perceived ills; even Boogie Nights — as porn-positive as it was — still casts the whole industry in a less-than-favorable light. But Jane (Dree Hemingway) seems pretty well-balanced, overall. She has her frustrations and her disappointments — her side of a short conversation with her mother back in Florida makes that much clear — but she seems pretty stable, working at her job just like any other. There’s even a hint that she’s had bigger problems and is taking positive steps to make better choices going forward. It may not be the life I’d choose, but I have a hard time criticizing her choices.
On the other hand, Baker doesn’t tip his story the other way into a big, sloppy.. uh.. kiss to an often-despised profession. It would be dishonest to pretend that porn doesn’t draw more than its share of less-than-stable applicants. Cases in point are Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone), with whom Jane lives. Melissa is as erratic as Mikey is skeevy; both of them are what you might normally expect from the popular image of hangers-on in the San Fernando valley’s porn scene. Jane may be paying them serious rent, but she can’t do much permanent to personalize her room in case Mikey needs to shoot in there.
And so it’s off to yard sales to pick up knick-knacks. And at one of them, she buys more than she’d bargained for. The irascible old woman on the porch, Sadie (Besedka Johnson) snaps that there are no refunds as she sells Jane a thermos, adamant that it is not a vase. On getting home, Jane discovers thousands of dollars in tight rolls secreted away inside. And what starts as an attempt to return the money turns into a surprising friendship between two women who couldn’t seem more different.
Hemingway and Johnson work perfectly together, not only when they’re getting along but also when their relationship is strained. And of course it’s very tense at first; what’s an old woman to think when a young woman in clothing measurable in square inches shows up over and over again? The question hanging in the air, though, is what will happen when Jane’s secret is revealed, as we all know it must eventually be.
Baker’s script — co-written with Greg the Bunny collaborator Chris Bergoch — is subtler than we might expect, and more touching. Despite its unusual subjects it has a certain sweetness and a sense that things may not be as bad as they seem. And, most remarkably of all, it has what is probably the most tasteful possible rendition of a porn shoot without simply glossing over it. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but Starlet is not an easy one to dismiss.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.