In the past month I’ve come to reevaluate my opinion of Sean Baker’s California-set indie Starlet, of which I wrote an ambivalent review a year and a half ago. In that piece I expressed admiration for Baker’s storytelling savvy but underrated the movie’s cultural critique. Now I think I may have gotten it backwards. After writing a couple blog posts on recent movies that address the sexual exploitation of young women, I realize that Starlet ought to be considered within the context of this important trend. For those who haven’t seen it, Baker’s movie tells the story of a dippy (but successful) young porn actress (Dree Hemingway) who befriends an old woman after inadvertently coming into possession of $10,000 of the old woman’s money. Baker doesn’t divulge until the halfway point that Hemingway’s character is a porn performer—before then he leads the audience to think she’s just an immature young woman who’s yet to outgrow her childish tendencies.
In my original review I described the revelation as an M. Night Shyamalan-style plot twist, inspiring surprise but not greater understanding of the characters. At the time I didn’t consider—perhaps because I didn’t want to—that the second half of the movie builds upon ideas introduced in the first. Now I think the movie’s suggesting that Hemingway’s character rises in the porn industry because she seems so childish. The films I wrote about last month (Girl Model, 9 Muses of Star Empire, Propaganda, et al.) argue persuasively that the sexualization of girls is a big business, as companies exploit pedophiliac fantasies to sell pop music and a wide range of consumer products. The pornography industry may be unique in so far as it appeals to these fantasies directly.
The second half of Starlet makes clear that, contrary to her flighty demeanor, Hemingway’s character is in fact rather levelheaded when it comes to her career. She stays on good terms with her employer, behaves graciously around her coworkers, and puts her best face forward when taking part in a soul-sucking industry convention. In short, she is unflappable in maintaining the image of a sexually compliant naif—which is a good thing from a financial standpoint, since that image can be used to such profitable ends. In hindsight the movie’s first half—which documents Hemingway’s aimless existence when she isn’t shooting porn—becomes insidious, hinting at something far more repulsive than the mere existence of pornography based around pedophiliac fantasies: that Hemingway’s character behaves immaturely on purpose, since it allows her to work on her commercially viable persona as one might hone any other marketable skill. Thinking about this turns my stomach, as well it should, and I commend Baker for making me confront the idea, however belatedly.