“STARRY EYES” (SXSW Movie Review)
Plenty of films would have you believe ambition is sexy. Desperation may reek, but the indefatigable drive forward and up is admirable. STARRY EYES, however ambiguously, seeks to challenge that as directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer cast long and dark shadows over a “nothing to something” Hollywood tale replete with defilement, rot, graphic murder and the occult. Want to achieve something great? Want to show them all? A sacrifice is required. It’s likely your humanity.
What’s surprising about STARRY EYES is the ultimate agency with which Sarah Walker (Alex Essoe) possesses in her grotesque journey. Having rejected the shuddery sexual advances of a producer that could make her dreams come true, she at least partially understands the ugliness seemingly necessary in getting where she needs to be. What takes her by violent, repulsive storm is the ugliness that arises within herself. Sarah’s body is revolting as she forsakes the DIY artistry of her circle of friends who all live in one apartment complex, and operate as a kind of commune. No, she’s striking out on her own, giving herself over to a Hollywood system portrayed quite literally as a cult and frighteningly transforming in the process.
STARRY EYES is already a nightmarish and nightmare logic-fueled portrait of actor life prior to Sarah’s full submission however. The aspiring actress is subject to leering from her boss at a sleazy fast food joint—one with odd correlation to Kenny Powers and Stevie’s sexy potato skins mall kiosk in the final season of EASTBOUND & DOWN. A series of new auditions are aggressive and invasive, prodding more than cosmetic flaws and getting to the core of her ticks and anxieties, coaxing a screaming, hair-pulling fit from her. Another session, also presided over by a wonderfully strange Maria Olsen and Marc Senter, is a powerful bit of stroboscopic assault for Sarah and the audience alike. At home, she’s subject to pettiness and undercutting from fellow starlet Erin (Fabianne Therese), as they both command the attention of indie director Danny (Noah Segan).
Outside of human interaction, Sarah is surrounded by grey. Los Angeles is nothing of the sunny good time we expect, but more akin to that portrayed in MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Instead, it’s foreboding and imposing, but also seductive. That contrast is part of directing team Kolsch & Widmyer employing heavy, heavy style in STARRY EYES, visually incorporating Sarah’s stresses, hallucinations and surreal ordeal and backing it all with something of a sexy, electronic score.
An undeniably ambitious film, STARRY EYES isn’t always fluid in navigating the many elements of its Hollywood horror show. There’s quite a lot to take in, as the filmmakers are plainly attempting to pack the film with all the monstrousness they and their team have likely experienced in the trenches. The result is partly ironic, as the character suffering so much to be a star doesn’t feel as if she fully gets the spotlight, despite a gross, gripping journey and a superb turn from Essoe.
Not dissimilar from this year’s Sundance hit WHIPLASH, STARRY EYES refuses to look away from a character willing to go an immensely horrifying distance for her desires. Kolsch & Widmyer are clearly attuned to the pitch black nature that consumes Sarah but, like the alluring score, there’s something stirring in her eventual transformation of living through an actor’s worst cosmetic nightmare and still forcibly taking what she wants.