One thing that's interesting about watching a film at a festival early in the year is paying attention to the way reviews trickle in over the rest of the year for the same film.  At some festivals, it seems to be embraced, and at other festivals, it seems like no one's buying it, and it's hard to imagine why there's such a wide range of reactions to the same film in different places.

That's how it's been this year for me and Sean Baker's film "Starlet."  The movie played at SXSW, which is where I saw it, and I was quite taken with it.  I think it's got two great performances in it, and it tells a solid little story against an interesting backdrop.  For some reason, though, there seem to be some critics who hate the movie.  Aggressively hate it.  That baffles me.  Your mileage might vary in terms of how much you respond to the film's substantial-if-low-key charms, but I cannot fathom what would make someone hate the movie.

In discussing "Starlet," one pretty much has to spoil part of the film's conceit.  That is a shame, but it's a great film and part of what makes it great is the matter of fact way they deal with Jane, played by Dree Hemingway.  She is a young, long-limbed beauty who more than slightly resembles a young Bridget Fonda, and she is extremely good in the film.  The title is as much joke as accurate description, since her dog's name is Starlet, but Jane is also a rising name in the San Fernando Valley porn scene.  She shares a house with Melissa (Stella Maeve), another fairly new-to-the-scene actress, and for a good chunk of the film, we see their daily lives minus the one important detail of what they actually do for a living.  When we do finally see Jane on-set shooting a scene, it is both startlingly graphic and completely matter-of-fact.  It's one small part of Jane's life, and that's how it's treated here.  She is not a "porn star," even if she is starting to develop a following and her price is going up.  Instead, we meet her as a person involved in a larger story, and porn is simply something she does, one small part of who she is.

The main relationship in the movie is between Jane and Sadie (Besedka Johnson), an old woman she meets one day at a garage sale.  Sadie takes one look at Jane and is completely unimpressed, and she treats her with open contempt.  Jane's great at letting other people's problems bounce right off of her, though, and she ends up buying a vase from Sadie even though the woman does her best to insult Jane.  When she gets home, Jane finds $10,000 in cash stuffed inside the vase.  She's immediately wracked with guilt, but isn't sure quite how to handle it.  Instead of just giving the money back to Sadie, she gets close to her, starts doing favors for her, many of them despite Sadie's protests, and she feels her out to see if she even realizes she lost any money.

The film doesn't really follow any predictable dramatic arc.  Baker's directorial eye is very observational, and he's more interested in the way this strange friendship begins to affect both of the women than he is in any easy plot mechanics.  Hemingway is very good in the film, and Johnson does great natural work, especially considering this is her first time in front of a camera.  She's got a touch of the Ruth Gordon delivery, that sly gruffness, and their relationship blooms in what feels like a perfectly organic fashion.

It's interesting to see how Baker goes out of his way not to try to make Jane's lifestyle seem lurid.  There is a sense of the mechanics of the porn industry, in particular once Melissa pisses off the people she works for and Jane has to try to intercede on her behalf.  Melissa is the kind of girl who is simply free-falling through life, and one gets the sense that this is just one stop on the way to oblivion for her.  Jane's more together than that, though, and she's trying to look at this as a stepping stone to whatever else she can do in life.  We live in a strange age in terms of pornography.  The line between audience and actor gets blurrier every day thanks to social media and the online presence of adult performers.  We live in the era of the reality show, and there is a huge difference between the way porn stars today interact with an audience and the way things worked in the heyday of adult cinema.  It seems hard to believe, but there was a moment where porn teetered on a sort of mainstream acceptability, when people would actually go see porn in a theater, when that was just one more part of the movie diet.  That moment didn't last long, though, and I think that's because ultimately, people's appetite for pornography is a very private thing.  These days, porn is a huge business, and porn actors turn themselves into hardcore marketing machines, using Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and Instagram and conventions and Amazon Wish Lists and any number of other methods to reach the consumer directly, to make them feel like they're not just watching these girls but that they are actually part of their daily lives.  In some ways, porn bypassed the mainstream altogether.  It is simply part of the fabric of the modern media age.  Porn is omnipresent.  Without pornography, no new home technology ever really succeeds, and porn is well aware of it.

Jane is not defined by what she does for a living, but rather by how she treats others, and that's why her relationship to Sophie seems so important.  She needs someone in her life who she can treat with kindness and who makes her feel needed, valuable.  She wants to be more than some hole taking up a temporary place in the wank fantasies of a faceless online nation, and Sadie is real.  Being part of Sadie's life gives Jane something more, something she is desperate for, and that desire makes "Starlet" a smart, sweet, haunting experience.

"Starlet" is now playing in limited release.