The bright sun that blasts through "Starlet," a thrillingly, unexpectedly good American movie about love and a moral awakening, bathes everything in a radiant light, even the small houses with thirsty lawns and dusty cars.

This isn't nowhere, but it's right next door -- in the San Fernando Valley, more commonly called the Valley. A seemingly endless stretch of subdivisions and McMansions, the Valley lies far below the rarefied heights of Mulholland Drive, that glamorous crest that helps divide the Los Angeles area into distinct swaths, economic realities, lifestyle choices and states of mind.

It's there that a 21-year-old actress who sometimes goes by Jane and sometimes Tess (Dree Hemingway) lives with her Chihuahua and two conspicuously less intelligent humans in an apartment building so anonymous it might as well be a motel. She leads a luxuriously drifty existence, or so it seems, with an open suitcase on her bedroom floor, its contents chaotically half-disgorged, and no apparent job.

If she's worried, she doesn't look it. As she drives around, she seems oblivious to the effect she can have on others, insulated by those natural armaments called beauty and youth. When she smiles, she distills a quality that Henry James evoked in describing Daisy Miller and her "inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence."

Director Sean Baker takes his time introducing Jane and the more intimate details of her life, knowing that some of the usual questions would be held in check by the effortlessness with which Hemingway holds the screen. With her unguarded smile and long legs tucked into distractingly short shorts, Jane brings to mind a newborn giraffe or colt.

The story pivots on a pile of cash that Jane finds in an old thermos she buys at a yard sale. After a brief shopping spree, she returns to the house where she bought the thermos, driven by an unarticulated sense of unease or maybe guilt. There she discovers Sadie (Besedka Johnson), an octogenarian who seems every bit as isolated as Jane. Whether out of curiosity or an overburdened conscience, Jane begins wedging herself into Sadie's life, trailing her like a sleuth or stalker.

There's an absurdity to this burgeoning relationship, as when Jane follows a startled Sadie to her regular church bingo game, that Baker by turns exploits and smartly reins in. Baker initially focuses on what separates his characters, only to then bring them into harmonious play in the widescreen frame, which seems to expand as their relationship does.

The acuity of his visual style is complemented by his sensitive work with his actresses, whose unforced performances deepen the movie's emotional realism. A model, Hemingway (her mother is Mariel Hemingway) has appeared in only a few films and is a spectacular find, as is Johnson, a longtime Angeleno making a true, piercing screen debut.

They are two of a kind, these strangers turned wary acquaintances. Baker doesn't give much away about either woman, in terms of their histories, but as they inch closer to each other, the continuities between them gain resonance, power.

Jane makes a living in front of a camera, although it's a while before you learn how, and it's easy to imagine that Sadie, with her heavy eyeliner and topknot, once wanted her shot at stardom. The patina of tawdry glamour that clings to this movie is, however, something of a diversion and also the point.

When Jane meets Sadie, the old woman is outside her house, obscured by overgrown foliage and the world's indifference. She's as forgotten as the junk she's trying to sell and blissfully, stirringly unaware that she is about to be discovered.

'starlet'

* * * 1/2

Rating: Not rated
Cast: Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson
Director: Sean Baker
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes