It’s somewhat ironic that Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch’s Starry Eyes, a film that literally singles out ambition as the blackest of human qualities, is the most ambitious film I have seen thus far at SXSW this year. That’s not to say that the film succumbs to the same temptations as its protagonist (an admirably raw and vulnerable Alexandra Essoe), but both the movie and its subject employ a black hearted scorched earth tactic – the efficacy of which is hard to deny.
As you may be able to gleam from the title, Starry Eyes plunges us headfirst into the fame hungry psyche of Sarah Walker – a fragile young actress already irreparably damaged by an unending cycle of rejection. One of the film’s biggest assets is the dimensionality it allows its lead here. A lazier film would be content to portray Sarah as impenetrably deluded and completely unaware of the staggering odds against her. That’s not the case here – while Sarah does possess the requisite blinders necessary for anyone to stake their happiness on the most unlikely of careers, she’s able to be honest with herself and others that she’s not exactly doing that great in terms of prospects. She has a small circle of friends who are also performers, some of them are warmly supportive (Noah Segan’s Danny) while others are harshly dismissive (Fabianne Therese’s Erin), a dynamic that casts her personal existence in the same kind of unending cruel purgatory as her professional life. In short, she’s perpetually trapped, exhausted and on the verge of release – something needs to change.
That change comes in the form of an audition for Astraeus Pictures, a legendary horror production company on the rebound after several years on the wane (think Hammer films with a corporate culture orchestrated by David Lynch). After a series of increasingly risky call-backs, she’s offered the lead role in their new film. The catch? The catch is a story as old as Hollywood itself – she must first submit to the whims of the casting couch (the ultimate deal with the Devil).
While you could probably correctly guess the basic trajectory of the film from here on out, Widmyer and Kolsch do an admirable job of keeping the audience on their toes by constantly shifting the tone of the film depending on which part of Sarah’s life they’re depicting. Her struggles as a waiter at a potato joint with Hooters aspirations alternate between stark and comedic (aided in no small measure by Pat Healy’s turn as a sympathetic manager – an archetype I was pleased to see subverted). The casting sessions and subsequent interactions with Astraeus are, as hinted before, marked by a cold absurdist streak right out of Mulholland Drive. The moments we get with her alone are painful, sweet and quiet while her circle of friends sort of melds the intimacy of mumblecore with the makeshift community of “Melrose Place.”
While more often than not these disparate elements cohere into a surprisingly atmospheric whole, the shifting tone is occasionally problematic. Starry Eyes switches gears so often it develops something of a patchwork quality that threatens to add a sense of bloat to its relatively straightforward arc. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that this universe contains a character as warm and empathetic as Segan’s and one as campily sterile as Marc Senter’s casting assistant. There are also a few moments towards the film’s end where it’s hard not to believe that Sarah’s close friends wouldn’t be a little more observant in regard to her condition.
But perhaps it’s a testament to Starry Eyes’ singularity that the same elements that provide its flaws also supply its strengths, which are far more prevalent. Complex and layered, it definitely leaves you with more to chew on than your typical midnight fare. It is also absolutely unsparing and brutal when it comes to its violence – there are moments in the film that give even the goriest slashers and body horror sagas alike a run for their money. Even if parts of Starry Eyes might not work for you, as a horror fan I suspect most of it will.