'Starry Eyes' is a delightfully macabre and subversive show business success story
Starry Eyes MPI Media Group
Director: Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer
Screenplay: Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer
Starring: Alexandra Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan, Fabiannae Therese, Maria Olsen, Marc Senter, Pat Healy and Louis Dezseran
Not rated / 1 hour, 38 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Now here is a film with real savagery. I mean that as the highest compliment. And I don't just mean that it's dark or macabre or bloody, even though yes, it is all of those things. But the savagery of Starry Eyes extends far beyond the blood volume or any of the other genre expectations. This is savagery of behavior (both physical and emotional), of concept, of attitude.
Like any good Hollywood satire, this movie is venomous and takes no prisoners. Sort of a distant cousin to Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, Starry Eyes inhabits a world of struggling actresses (and the would-be indie directors who surround them, insisting that they're on the cusp of making a film of their own) going from audition to audition looking for that big break. The film plays like a neo-Lynchian take on the A Star is Born template, with our heroine Sarah (Alexandra Essoe) getting "discovered" at a run-of-the-mill audition and then gradually discovering - to both her horror and her acceptance - exactly what becoming a successful actress entails.
The toxicity levels are enormously high, to the extent that it feels like a genuine, if surreal, reaction to real experiences from the bottom rung of up-and-coming Hollywood, and all the vulnerable, would-be ingénues that populate it. The film is written and directed by the filmmaking team of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, and their temperament here is both acerbic and playful.
One of the smartest things they do is focus on the character in primal terms, making her whole ensuing journey feel more visceral, and the things that happen to her feel like violations of her soul as well as her body. See, Sarah has this habit of pulling out her hair in chunks. It's an anxiety release, and she's been doing it since childhood, and she tends to be compelled to do it whenever she gets too stressed out. Like, say, at an audition.
And yet, all too perfectly, it is just that habit - the self-punishment, the self-mutilation, the self-hatred - that gets her the opportunity she's been awaiting for so long. We see her trying out for a small part in what seems to be a horror film; her audience is an off-putting, two-person casting crew (their unwelcome reaction does not phase Sarah; probably all of her auditions are like this) - an emotionless middle-aged woman in a blazer and a younger man who speaks with a thick, strange affect that sounds kind of like someone's stoned attempt at a Patrick Bateman impersonation.
The audition doesn't go well, and Sarah immediately goes to the bathroom, holes herself up in a stall and proceeds to have a panic attack that only subsides when she violently grabs chunks of her hair from both sides of her head and yanks it out practically from its roots. (The sound design here is tremendous; it's almost painful to listen as the hair get ripped out.)
Turns out the emotionless producer woman was in the bathroom for all of this, and she looks impressed. "Perhaps you have what it takes after all," she says - or something along those lines. And so Sarah is brought back into the audition room and asked to basically replicate her "performance" from the bathroom. She does, and in the process punches her ticket to the big time.
Well, it's not quite that easy, as she soon discovers. But it at least gets her in the room with the powerful, oily producer (played indelibly by Louis Dezseran, in a two-scene performance that reminded me of Chad Everett in that creepy rehearsal scene from Mulholland Drive), and you know what "gets her in the room with a powerful producer" means in Hollywood satire terms. Except, as this movie proves, you don't - at least not entirely. Because things proceed down an eerie and supernatural road, as the film translates "making it" as "getting wrapped up with a terrifying secret society."
Particularly during its second half, Starry Eyes vividly reminded me - for different but very specific reasons - of Eyes Wide Shut, Rosemary's Baby and David Cronenberg's The Fly. Anchored by Essoe's terrific lead performance, the film takes its time to reveal the depths of its intentions, and the filmmakers' level of patience really pays off. What begins as a cynical, creepy but relatively simple portrait of the lifestyles of the not-yet-rich and not-yet-famous slowly morphs into a pitch-black and insane send-up of how to make it in show business. Sarah's ascension to the big time requires a descent, basically, into hell.
After some initial trepidation, I found myself enormously impressed by the lengths Kolsch and Widmyer ended up going with this subject matter and this character; as a filmmaking team, they are genuinely a talented duo to watch and I can't wait to see what they do next.
Although, in light of this film, maybe it would be even more interesting to see how they made it to Hollywood in the first place.