11/08/2012 07:17 am ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Review: Starlet

Starlet, opening Friday in limited release, may be one of the year's most surprising little movies, a tough-minded, low-budget tale that never quite leads you where it seems to be going.

Not that where it's going is somewhere you'd choose for yourself. But writer-director Sean Baker hooks you early and keeps twisting the screws in unexpected ways. Whether you mean to or not, you get caught up in its seemingly simple story, even as it reveals layers that are unexpected.

Dree Hemingway plays Jane, one of those ubiquitous California girls that seem to grow out of the cracks in the sidewalks in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. She lives with a roommate named Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Melissa's boyfriend Mikey (James Ransone) in a relatively unfurnished townhouse with a little dog named Starlet as her constant companion.

Jane's got a car but no apparent job. So it seems to be her lucky day when she makes the rounds of Sunday yard sales and comes away with a thermos. She gets into an argument with the elderly woman who's selling it, when Jane tells her that she plans to use it as a vase.

When she gets it home and tries to put flowers in it, however, there's something inside: several rubber-banded rolls of $100 bills. It's about $10,000 -- which should keep Jane in jobless, weed-smoking splendor with her roommates for a while (though she doesn't tell them about the money).

But she feels guilty. The elderly woman she bought it from, whose name is Sadie (Besedka Johnson), obviously needs money, if she's holding a yard sale. Jane isn't ready to tell her that she found the money -- but she does feel compelled to intrude into Sadie's life, to "bump into" her at the grocery store and offer her a ride, and continue to insert herself into what she views as Sadie's lonely existence.

Which she does, despite Sadie's initial resistance. Think Harold and Maude or Harry and Tonto or any other film in which a young person befriends an elderly one and both take something from the other. Jane injects new life into Sadie's world and gives her help and company, while Sadie offers some perspective to the aimless, carefree Jane.

Both, of course, have secrets and neither is revealing much about themselves. But gradually the audience gets a peak into the lives they're keeping from each other. I won't spoil them here, but neither woman is who she seems to be.

Hemingway has a vitality that's undeniable, a sunniness that seems infectious and can be both genuine and a mask. Johnson brings a presence, more than a performance, to the role of Sadie, but her chemistry with Hemingway feels real. Maeve and Ransone are a gamey pair, perfect representatives of the dark underside of the California good-time life.

Starlet is small but precise, a bitter little pill of a movie wrapped in a sugary coating. It's enigmatic enough to keep you watching -- and thinking about it long afterward.

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