After an aspiring young actress (Dree Hemingway) discovers a large amount of money hidden inside an item she purchased at an elderly woman's (Besedka Johnson) garage sale, the two women decide to spend some time together.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The inter-generational friendship has been a staple of independent cinema since Harold first met Maude. This time it gets a contemporary updating, to reflect something of the post-Bush-era, pre-Obamacare United States. Tougher than it appears at first glance, and far more subtle and surprising than one might expect, it’s a modest but enduring achievement, one of the most satisfying US indies of the year.
it’s to Baker’s credit that he achieves so much with two non-professional leads
One weekend, 21-year-old Jane visits a series of yard sales, hoping to furnish her dismal bedroom in the apartment she shares with her perpetually stoned, frequently bickering flatmates. At one of these, run by Sadie, a none-too-friendly old woman, she finds a thermos—which, amusingly, she mistakes for a vase—and buys it, only to later discover a thick, wadded bundle of bank notes concealed inside it.
Cue shopping expedition, you might think. Plus squabbles with flatmates, an inevitable theft . . . But while most of these things happen, none of them is accorded the significance you might imagine—just as no one here acts quite as one would expect. Instead, the narrative keeps surprising us, taking odd little detours and by-ways, wrong-footing our assumptions at every turn. Even that title is not as it appears, belonging as it does to our heroine’s pet Chihuahua, perhaps the least distinctive dog in recent cinema.
No monster, Jane feels a tremor of conscience at her find—what if Sadie needs the money?—though quite not enough, it should be noted, to actually return the cash. Instead, like a murderer compelled to return to the scene of the crime, she begins contriving excuses to run into Sadie: surprising her at a supermarket, following her to bingo . . . Irritated, the older woman tries to push the girl away; Jane, determinedly oblivious, keeps bouncing back. And very slowly, a grudging kind of relationship is formed between them—one that, by the end, almost comes to resemble an actual friendship.
Writer-director Sean S. Baker withholds information shrewdly: for the first 45 minutes, Jane’s occupation, the question of what exactly she does, remains a subject of speculation. The astute viewer, however, might glean something from her vast amounts of free time, her penchant for thigh-high socks and hot pants, and, most of all, from her environs: the broad, vacant avenues and low-rise blocks of LA’s San Fernando Valley, which serves as home to LA’s once-thriving, now declining porn industry.
Those streets, sun-drenched and characterless, are depicted here with a trance-like intensity—one that snaps abruptly into focus the moment Jane turns up on-set to be fucked by real-life woodsman Manuel Ferrera. The scene is reasonably explicit, though a body-double is used for Hemingway (former porn starlet Zoe Voss, also glimpsed here as a receptionist). But its placement in the narrative is ingenious, since by now we’ve spent enough time with this girl to define her as something more than merely a porn star. Which is necessary, since it removes the prurient, sensationalist aspect from this tale, and focuses instead on its status as a social critique.
Why does Jane work in adult films? Perhaps because pornography explicitly (pun intended) turns the body into a commodity, an item of value in a marketplace—and as such, provides an elegant metaphor for the diminished condition of labour today in the United States. Watching, it seemed to me that the film’s theme was less the redemptive power of friendship (as it might first appear), than the pervasive force of social alienation; indeed, the entire film could be read as an illustration of Marx’s theory of Estrangement. From one’s surroundings as well as one’s activities.
There’s no hint, for example, that Jane either enjoys her work or feels exploited or humiliated by it. It’s simply a job—as a banal, post-coital exchange with her colleagues makes clear. (They could as easily be in the rec room of a Wal-Mart, filling a coffee break with idle chat.) She has no boyfriend in her private life—no lover at all, in fact—nor shows any particular interest in finding one; she might work in the sex industry, but aside from this one, strictly mercantile encounter, there’s no sense of her as any kind of sexual being whatsoever. Instead, she’s managed to segregate her activities from her self. The worker’s disconnect from their labour is complete.
With so much thematic weight to bear, it’s to Baker’s credit that he achieves so much with two non-professional leads. The daughter of actress Mariel Hemingway—and the great-granddaughter, yes, of Ernest—Dree Hemingway was a fashion model; tall and coltish, she looks at times like a young Aimee Mann. Starlet is her first film role of any consequence, and she neatly communicates both her character’s fundamental decency and her essential incuriosity, her slacker’s willingness to take things strictly as they seems to be. But she also gives the sense of a private self, something guarded and unknowable—perhaps even to herself.
And then there’s Besedka Johnson. A long-time resident of Los Angeles, Ms. Johnson was reportedly discovered by one of the film’s producers working out—at the age of 85—at a Hollywood YWCA. She had for many years run a dress shop on Ventura Boulevard; she had never acted before. The film premiered at SXSW in March 2012, and she died just over a year later, after complications from surgery, leaving this one, quietly formidable performance behind.
Flinty and terse, wary of emotional connections, her Sadie is refreshingly difficult to love—unlike most movie octogenarians, there’s nothing remotely 'adorable’ about her—and her silence suggests entire volumes of backstory. (When Jane expresses amazement that Sadie’s late husband made so much money as a professional gambler, the older woman fixes her with the kind of wry, sardonic stare that Jane Greer might have turned on Robert Mitchum. 'Yeah? Well. He was a good one,’ she mutters drily.)
In a film of uniformly strong supporting performances (and it’s worth noting that everyone here, from porn producers to bingo hall habitués, looks absolutely right), special credit should go to James Ransone, as the boyfriend of Jane’s flatmate Melissa. He’s an identifiable type: the small-time hustler—not quite a pimp yet, but well on his way, and more than willing to use what small leverage he has (basically, his girlfriend’s sexual organs) in order to stake out his own, precarious place within the industry. It’s the kind of guy Ransone plays especially well, just a few rungs further down the ladder from his Ziggy in The Wire, and he manages to find comedy in his character’s inherent loathsomeness.
Shooting in widescreen, but composing mostly in tight, handheld close-ups, cinematographer Radium Cheung favours a shallow depth of field and soft, desaturated tones throughout—those opening scenes, as Jane wakes groggily to another morning in the golden west, are composed almost entirely of variations on pale yellow. The walls of her apartment, the carpet, Jane’s lank, tousled hair—all more or less the same colourless colour. Washed out, nearly transparent. It manages to suggest, at the same time, a world newly made, radiant with possibility, and a milieu utterly drained of life. You have to imagine that Sadie would appreciate the irony.