Starry Eyes, 2014.
Directed by Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
Starring Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan
Aspiring actress Sarah responds to an intriguing casting call, but soon finds out just how much is expected of her for the role of a lifetime.
If you want to make films you go to L.A. If you want to be repelled you watch films about L.A. There’s no shortage of films taking aim at the show business side of the ‘city of angels’, usually stemming from some form of disillusionment on the part of writers or directors. Any place with the potential to grant wishes is bound to attract the most optimistic of folks, and if that same place then denies them their dreams -or worse, twists them- it’s understandable when it attracts the harshest satire. The 1989 film Society is one such example; a film in which the Hollywood elite are nothing more than physical representations of the disgust that writer Woody Keith felt for the people he knew at that time. Picking up this torch and running with it is Starry Eyes from directing duo Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer.
Aspiring actress Sarah (Alex Essoe) is caught in the typical rut of attending any audition she can before being waved away and returning to her job at a potato-themed restaurant. Sharing an apartment with her best friend Tracey (Amanda Fuller) she spends her free time surrounded by Tracey’s aimless friends and deflecting bitchy comments from semi-rival Erin (Fabianne Therese). While attending one audition she’s discarded somewhat more harshly than usual and she snaps; running to the bathroom where she enacts her usual routine of self-harm by violently pulling her hair out during times of stress. This catches the attention of the female casting agent (Maria Olsen) who happened to see Sarah’s outburst, and she’s put forward to meet the film’s producer. From here Starry Eyes explores not so much the depths of ambition but rather the misery of desperation as Sarah is sexually propositioned by the producer (Louis Dezseran) and told this is her gateway to stardom. The ramifications of this incident play out over the film’s second half and we watch as Sarah spirals into an uncertain reality.
Starry Eyes has more in common with previous L.A.-based horror tales than a simple distrust of the Hollywood-elite; it feels more like a script that has been sitting in a drawer since 1988 and has maintained elements of its decade. Jonathan Snipes’ music is perhaps the most obvious callback to films of that time, with a brilliant electronic score underlining the seedy nature of the city by night. It’s used rather sparingly but is certainly a success in that it leaves you wanting more, especially as the visuals reach a visceral frenzy. The direction is accomplished throughout and while nobody films L.A. by night like Michael Mann both Kolsch and Widmyer have performed admirably, conveying the deliberate artifice permeating both the city and its inhabitants. Another hallmark of the 80s -body horror- takes centre stage during the film’s final third as Sarah’s decision to abandon her old life is made physical, and part of this transformation is the film’s jet-black humour. While there are no overt jokes the notion of Sarah’s transformation is itself satire aimed at the upper echelons of Hollywood, the monsters they must become in order to succeed and the way in which they discard of anyone close to them en route to the top. This transformation is slow and painful, but it’s clear both directors value atmosphere over brutality as any physical violence towards people other than Sarah is heavily compartmentalised.
Alex Essoe’s performance as a frustrated actress and desperate human being is undeniably great, with each scene giving her a new low point to aim for that she effortlessly hits. Every turn from Sarah is portrayed believably and done so with a visibly broken heart. Her performance manages to outshine others in the film, such as Marc Senter’s production assistant, who comes across as a villain from a children’s book when placed next to Essoe’s naturalistic and vulnerable Sarah. The Producer himself played by Louis Dezseran is another slightly camp villain, the kind Ray Wise plays well but manages to keep grounded and seemingly capable of violence. Noah Segan is somewhat of a wet blanket as Danny, although at least partially intentionally given his relative inaction is what spurs Sarah on to a second meeting with The Producer. Luckily Sarah is never really away from the screen, but it’s a relatively disappointing crop of characters in relation to an amazing central performance.
There are however issues Sarah’s transformation, such as the languorous pacing with which we observe every physical step of her descent into a bag of mush. The more disappointing aspect is in its failure to do more with the idea that the entertainment industry is run by Satanists intent on recruiting. It’s a single stab in the gut of Hollywood but it hardly twists the knife, instead content with letting us watch the knife enter slowly over roughly ninety minutes. Sarah’s increasingly tenuous grasp on reality is also one echoed by an audience making it harder to invest in certain scenes as they happen. Her crumbling perception is repeatedly used more as a rug-pull than an exploration of her psyche. There’s enough to admire in Starry Eyes, but ultimately the wry smile with which we complete our story is not quite enough to make the preceding physical and mental anguish endured by Sarah and her friends one worth revisiting.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★