It’s anchored by an understated, unstintingly honest performance by Qualley, who plays the heroine, Trish, a twentysomething writer. Trish describes herself as a journalist but apparently hasn’t sold a piece in a long time, probably because her last sale was about politically motivated kidnappings and hangings in Nicaragua related to tensions with Costa Rica (the mainstream journalism industry in America isn’t much interested in stories like that anymore—and barely ever was). She sells her body for money (and in one case, favorable treatment from a person in authority) and treats her neighborhood as an open-air series of opportunities, helping herself to sample bottles of shampoo from the bathroom of a man she’s just slept with, pretending to be a guest at a fancy hotel so that she can feed herself from the complimentary breakfast buffet, and filching a roll of toilet paper from the ladies room and hiding it in her purse.
One of her trysts is with a handsome, well-dressed young British man (known only as The Englishman in the source book, but named Daniel here). She clicks with him more than she expected to, considering she met him in a hotel bar an hour before closing and offered to go to his room because she needed money and wanted free drinks and companionship. Daniel, played by Joe Alwyn, is just as much of a tough customer as she is, though naive about the political situation around them. Trish is convinced the country is falling into authoritarianism again (the elections keep being postponed and there are men with rifles everywhere), while he insists there are still good, idealistic people in government and things won’t go over the brink. On the other hand, he says he works for an oil company, and Trish finds a handgun in his shaving kit, so who knows what’s true—about him, or anything?
“Stars at Noon” takes its sweet time even sidling up to the barest hint of a plot; the first half-hour is just about Trish and her world and routine. Somewhere around the halfway mark, Trish sees Daniel having breakfast with a man who she knows to be a Costa Rican cop but represents himself to Daniel as something else. There’s a lovely low-speed “chase” after that, with the man following Trish and Daniel in their taxi as rain pounds down on the car’s windows and metal frame. Later, they go back to her hotel and there’s a long scene that could be considered the essence of “Stars at Noon,” in which Trish gives Daniel a little “tour” of her shabby room before they have sex. The camera stays in a fixed position for much of it, moving only slightly to keep the actors in frame, and we’re given a rare (for modern cinema) opportunity to just watch people be who they are.