Two actors make surprising film debuts in Starlet, winner of a special jury prize at SXSW. Dree Hemingway (yes, one of those Hemingways) is Jane, a 21-year-old porn film worker surrounded by a host of dysfunctional friends and co-workers (Stella Maeve as Melissa). Besedka Johnson is Sadie, an 86-year-old widow living on her own. Jane buys a thermos from Sadie at a garage sale and discovers it's stuffed with cash. Filled with guilt, curiosity, and looking for life off the XXX-movie set, Jane befriends Sadie. Things don't go quite smoothly at first (Jane ends up with a face full of mace early on), but eventually the two disparate women form a bond. When her friends discover that Jane's spent the found cash on Sadie instead of them, they set out to sabotage the relationship.
Director Sean Baker, co-writing here with Chris Bergoch, keeps Starlet from meandering into silly sentimentality. Echoing Lizzie Bordon's 1986 Working Girls, he shows sex workers as something more than unhappy victims caught by circumstance. Barker gives both women dimension and complexity, keeping either from becoming merely stereotypical pulling nuanced performances from both (an especially neat trick since he reportedly found the completely untrained and inexperienced Johnson at a YMCA).
Don't bring any preconceptions to
They'll only confuse things. Lots of viewers had a sense of inadequacy at screenings of Shane Carruth's
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Surely they were missing something; they enjoyed and appreciated the film, they just didn't know what the hell it was about exactly.
Acting as director, producer, cinematographer, editor, composer and distributor for his Carruth has created a beautiful, but inscrutable, film. Upstream Color was reportedly made for $7,000, but while Carruth is able to visually translate almost nothing into a quite impressive something on screen he's less successful with making an interesting though flimsy plot into something understandable. Jeff (played by Carruth) and Kris (Amy Seimetz), both deeply damaged people, meet on a train. She's been through (or at least maybe been through) a harrowing experience; she was kidnapped, drugged and brainwashed. He's come along and seems - we say seems with no particular certainly - to be falling in love with Kris. Together they start to heal - perhaps.
Nothing's certain in Upstream Color, people may or may not be who they say they are, they may or may not have been through what they say they have. Being released today on DVD/Blu-ray, Upstream Color might make more sense after repeated viewings. Then again, it might not. The only thing that's sure, is that it's worth the effort.