At the New Zealand International Film Festival, Sean Baker’s ode to friendship, and Joss Whedon’s carefree Shakespeare adaptation.
I’ve been dwelling on Starlet for the better part of a week. One of the best films I’ve seen at the festival, let alone all year, it’s also one that has lingered in my head. It’s not an easy film to review either, as it appears to pivot on a twist (that I only found out afterward was a twist; it seemed delicately telegraphed by the filmmakers early on), and most of the pleasures come from its sweetly observational style. On the surface, it’s a film about a young woman, Jane (Dree Hemingway), who befriends an old woman, Sadie (Besedka Johnson). This sounds like the material for a very bad Lifetime movie, but director/writer/editor Sean Baker turns this sweet story into a rumination on the value of friendship in our modern times.
The film gets a lot of credit for not judging any of its characters—even some of the most horrid supporting characters—while also embracing them at the same time. Jane is introduced to us as a character that we think we know: a vapid Los Angeles blonde trying to make it in the entertainment industry. But Baker spends time developing her and her weird quirks, along with a male dog called Starlet that is her constant companion, and along with Hemingway’s incredible performance, Jane comes off like a real human being. All this leads to her relationship with Sadie hitting harder than I expected it to.
Starlet interrogates some pretty weighty concepts about friendship, like what underlying emotions are beneath every friendship in our modern age, and how toxic a friendship can become, but does so while being a genuinely pleasurable and sometimes hilarious film to watch. The relationship between Jane and Sadie develops believably, from Jane’s insistence to take Sadie to supermarket and join her for bingo games to Sadie’s initial reluctance and then sudden reliance on Jane’s support and companionship.
It’s hard to translate how unique and moving this film is. It gives us two characters who are often marginalised in films—the ditz and the old woman—and brings them together in a friendship that is more real and genuine that any I’ve seen onscreen in a long time, coinciding with a final act that hits hard: sometimes just wanting to be good to another person is enough.
I was dreading Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. The thought of a group of American TV actors doing a black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation in Joss Whedon’s house sounds like two hours of cinema that will be hard on the ear and more than a little navel-gazing. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t intolerable, and was even a little bit good.
A little bit good is about as far as I’d go, though. The project has limitations: filmed over a few weeks in Joss Whedon’s home with a bunch of actors he has worked with and corralled together, you can almost see the film being shot in between the lazing about and hanging out that the cast and crew almost certainly did. From the outset, it’s clear that this is not going to be a grand production of Much Ado About Nothing. If you want that, see Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing from the nineties. But this adaptation has its own pleasures.
The cast is a mixed bag. Some of the actors appear under-rehearsed or unfamiliar with the parts, and some scenes look like they were learned the day before and then blocked haphazardly on the spot. However, some of the cast truly impress. After a disastrous first scene, Amy Acker is terrific as the romantic lead Beatrice and looks utterly gorgeous. Alexis Denisof is also a winning Beniof and nails the physical comedy of the part. Nathan Fillion nails Dogberry, despite looking like he doesn’t understand his lines at certain points, and Fran Kranz gives Claudio’s wedding speech a real heart wrenching punch. The rest of the cast have their moments, but the Shakespearean language never rests easy in anybody’s voice, which brings an odd flatness to the film.
Whedon’s direction is fairly standard. Apart from some awkward blocking, the film moves along quickly as an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing should, and the transitions between scenes aren’t covered up so much as they are ignored, which is more than a little jarring. The decision to shoot in black and white was a wise one; it gives the film, updated to modern day L.A., a timeless quality that harkens back to the screwball comedies of the Golden Age. And even though this film never quite reaches those heights—and it never could—Whedon keeps it rolling along well and provides some of the biggest laughs I’ve had this year.
Ultimately, Much Ado About Nothing is little more than a pleasant diversion. In a few years it will probably be a helpful educational tool for people studying the play in high school. For Shakespeare, it’s readily accessible even for a Shakespeare intolerant audience. As for now, it’s a fun comedy from a guy who clearly just wanted to make a neat movie with his friends.