Every time I saw the title to this movie, I read it in the voice of Eric Carmen as he sings “Hungry Eyes”. Why? I have no goddamned clue. This is relevant information to a review, right? The day that Starry Eyes had its world premiere was a rough one, as it had been raining most of the day in Austin and I had to walk around to all these stupid places, leaving me with stupid wet shoes and socks. I decided to reward myself with warm cookies, courtesy of the Alamo Drafthouse, and they were fantastic. Little did I know that, after speaking with the filmmakers, there were quite a few cookies devoured during shooting, so with this unspoken connection, it’s no surprise that Starry Eyes ended up being one of my favorite films this year at SXSW.
Being a hot young starlet in LA who is trying to break into Hollywood is easier said than done, as I know personally since I am a hot young starlet. The same can be said of Sarah (Alexandra Essoe) so just can’t seem to catch an acting break while working part-time at a fast food establishment called “Hot Taters”. After a performance she was disappointed in, she goes so far as to pull her hair out from the frustrations. When she goes to audition for a horror film with a reputable production company, they ask her to do some unconventional things, and desperate for the role, she complies. This leads to the next audition, requiring her to expose even more of herself, which also leads to a third audition. The third audition asks her to cross a line she never wanted to cross, so she doesn’t, but when she sees her friends succeeding all around her, it makes her question if maybe taking that role would have been worth it. As she decides how much she’s willing to sacrifice for her dreams to come true, we realize that maybe this production company has bigger plans for Sarah than just taking a role in their movie, and that’s when things get super fucked up and weird and crazy and awesome.
Sounds pretty tame, right? Kind of normal? Oh, fuck no. The third act in this movie goes in bonkers directions and I was with it every step of the way. Writer/directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer incorporated a lot of elements in the film that reminded me of other movies without ever feeling like those elements were being “ripped off”. The way the main title pops up on the screen and the music starts instantly made me think of Ti West’s The House of the Devil, despite both films mimicking opening title cards from films made decades earlier. The idea of a young girl being given the opportunity to succeed and going along with things because she’s in an unfamiliar setting felt a lot like Suspiria, made only all the more apparent with the fantastic synth musical score and the surreal visual look of it. Having a third act where a female lead takes matters into her own hands and descends into places you didn’t expect them to go reminded me a lot of Excision, which, well, you’ll see another connection if you’ve seen both of these films.
Casting Alex Essoe in the lead role despite never having to carry a whole movie was a bold move and it was one that absolutely paid off. Remember guys, she’s playing the part of an actress being given a breakout performance, and Starry Eyes has the potential to be a breakout performance! It’s like the movie is of a movie of itself! It’s basically those Russian dolls is what I’m trying to say. This movie is based on those Russian dolls, right? Wait, I’m getting off track. The point is that the weight of having to decide between a steady paycheck at a fast food restaurant and sacrificing her mind, body, and spirit for the opportunity to make her dreams come true, Essoe really captures that torment and struggle. Maybe another reason this film drew comparisons in my mind to The House of the Devil and Suspiria is that they both feature gorgeous brown-haired leads and Starry Eyes features, well, uhhh, without running the risk of embarrassing myself, Alexandra Essoe, is, uh, well…she’s not bad-looking, I guess. What was I saying? Oh, yes, it’s great seeing a character like Sarah in a horror film who, while at times plays the victim, she always has complete control over her future and can back out of the situation at any time. Some people might see her as a victim, but the story ultimately empowers her and everyone else has to play by her rules. Juxtaposing the struggles she’s going through with her friends, whose talent includes Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan, and Fabianne Therese, make her struggles seem all that more questionable as her friends just get to hang out in a pool and drink all day and still manage to find success. Great job, everybody.
As I was talking to someone who lives in LA after having seen the film, I had mentioned that the film could have just been some sort of critique on the Hollywood machine and even though there were hints of it, I never really felt like Hollywood was being chastised directly. Their response was the exact opposite, saying that the themes of Hollywood chewing up and spitting out young actors and actresses who are willing to do anything for a part is a theme they connected much more with. Considering the filmmakers also mentioned one of their heavier influences being Zulawski’s Possession, it was like a light was switched in my brain that made everything make sense. This film can both be taken at surface value yet can also be looked at through a microscope at its commentaries on fame and sacrifice. The Hollywood you see in the film is nothing like the real Hollywood, yet it’s exactly the same. The Hollywood that exists in the world of Starry Eyes can’t be found anywhere else, while also being an amalgam of every version of Hollywood we’ve seen or heard about. Seeing the places that Kolsch and Widmyer went on their debut feature just makes me all that more excited for every other movie they ever make, as Starry Eyes was one of the smartest, creepiest, disturbing, surreal, and also entertaining movies to come out of SXSW.
Finding that balance of how much to tell the audience and how much to leave up for question is always a tough line to walk, and Starry Eyes found that balance wonderfully. There’s the world where Sarah is trying to get the job with these creepy production people, and the world where she’s not as happy as all of her friends are who just want to drink and have fun. Both of these worlds exist at the same time, and there’s more going on in both of these worlds than what we see, but watching Sarah walk between these worlds really helped the creepy vibe of the whole film. Without giving away too much about the plot, there is clearly a LOT more going on with this production crew, and the audience was shown just enough about them to be creeped out without things feelings too silly. But you guys know me, and one thing I fucking love is cults. I’ll leave it at that. Starry Eyes was an ambitious project to attempt, and everyone really succeeded. The film can be taken at surface value, or it can be taken much deeper, and either way the movie is entertaining and weird as shit. Goddammit I love when movies have the balls to get really fucking weird, not caring how the audience is going to react. Great job all around, guys. I’m proud of you.
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