A small, good thing—as beautifully restrained and perfectly distilled as a short story by Raymond Carver or Alice Munro, rendered in sunnily muted widescreen digital images that turn the San Fernando Valley into a distinct cinematic landscape. Wading in risky narrative waters, Sean Baker's instincts are amazingly unerring; his subtlety is matched by his performers, on whom he gazes without judgment and empathizes without sentimentality. Starlet lacks either the self-regard or the obvious ambition that characterizes most critics' darlings, so don't expect to see this on too many year-end lists despite its awards-season release. But it might as well be the best movie of the year.
Worth sticking out for the novelty of the images, and no doubt there's value in the documentation of pure physical experience, but the total lack of even the barest scraps of context or reflection—which I realize is the point—left me wondering why exactly I was being asked to behold all this unpleasantness. ("Asked" isn't the right word; this movie doesn't seem to care whether anyone is watching it at all. It's a fish carcass falling in the forest.) Plus, at least half the time I literally didn't know what I was looking at. Talk about "chaos cinema"...