Writer-director Sean Baker may not (yet) be a household name, but his fan base is growing exponentially with his latest effort, Starlet, a cinematic gem.
The film follows the forging of an unlikely relationship between a bristly octogenarian, Sadie (newcomer Besedka Johnson), who harbors an unfulfilled, girlish dream of visiting Paris, and Jane (the radiant Dree Hemingway -- yes, that Hemingway's great granddaughter), a 20-something porn star. Jane's sweet, breezy way offers a funny juxtaposition to the crabby closed-off Sadie.
Here's the set up: After purchasing a thermos at Sadie's yardsale in sun-saturated Los Angeles, Jane finds a whopping wad of cash that amounts to $10,000 inside it. When she attempts to return the container and its small fortune, Sadie tells her all sales are "final," rebuffing further conversation. Driven by guilt, curiosity, even loneliness, the long-legged Jane, with her adorable chihuahua, Starlet, court Sadie's friendship with insufferable -- and yet, endearing -- persistence. What ensues is an unexpected, powerful and poignant rendering of their quirky journey together.
Like Baker's previous films -- The Prince of Broadway and Take Out -- Starlet is a tour de force of cinéma verité. His trademark is turning ordinary situations upside down and inside out, often exploring the social fringe with such sensitivity and nuance that he shatters our expectations and erects new ways of feeling and thinking against convention.
In Prince of Broadway, he introduces us to the intimacies and struggles of Lucky, a sweet-natured immigrant from Ghana, who hustles designer knock-offs and clumsily parents a two-year-old left to his care by an ex. In Take Out, Baker shows us a day in the life of a Chinese delivery man, who must amass $800 in tips before the day's end to pay off a life-threatening debt. With Starlet -- which grapples with secrecy, loneliness and loss -- he depicts the porn industry with such refreshing neutrality and non-judgement that it's a shock. Playing at select theaters around the country, the offbeat indie drama recently won Special Jury Prize at SXSW and nabbed two Independent Spirit Award nominations.
When The Slant caught up with the award-winning director, who also dexterously dabbles in television (Fox's Greg the Bunny and MTV's Warren the Ape), he walked us through his creative process, illuminating his rationale for including the film's graphic sex scene, cutting a hard-earned shot and naming his movie after Jane's canine companion.
Read the Q&A with Baker at The Slant: There's Always More to the Story