Starry Eyes (2014) d. Kevin Kolsch / Dennis Widmyer (USA)
Aspiring actress Sarah (Alexandra Essoe) juggles her soul-killing day job at a spud-centric Hooter’s knock-off (Big Taters) while knocking on doors all over Tinseltown. The deceptively simple plot follows her day-to-day trials until her big break comes in the form of a toilet temper tantrum following a botched audition (this happens a lot in the acting world; trust me on this). The casting director hears something “different” behind those thin walls and invites her back for a second, more involved audition, followed by a meeting with the mysterious producer, each step drawing the young artist deeper into the tar-thick mire of immorality. But sin – and fame – comes at a price, with Sarah’s tender spirit and flesh the currency of the day....
Despite showing up on numerous year-end best-of lists following its world premiere at last year’s SXSW and subsequent VOD release in November, this scathing condemnation of Hollywood’s seamy, sinister underbelly has largely flown under mainstream fans’ radar. The notion that one of the strongest and strangest horror titles to emerge in years – a high-impact blend of Rosemary’s Baby, Mulholland Dr., and Eric England’s stomach-churning Contracted – is languishing in the shadows is an out-and-out crying shame.
Filled with expert shade and nuance on every level, Starry Eyes is brave and bold, anchored by one of the most fearless and vanity-free lead performances in recent memory. This is the kind of go-for-broke, challenging effort that should be championed and cheered at the multiplexes, and while I appreciate that Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook found favor with the masses and the mainstream media, I wish the writing/directing team of Kolsch and Widmyer had enjoyed the same acclaim, because they are equally deserving.
But the main attraction, which is saying something considering the level of proficiency of her colleagues before and behind the lens, is Essoe, who is nothing short of a miracle. By turns timid and terrifying, it is only the small-mindedness of her industry compatriots that kept her off the Oscar ballot this year. This is no exaggeration – she’s that good. Sarah’s insecurities dance a constant, wicked boogie along the surface of her fragile features, her ambitions and dreams warring with self-doubt fueled by her roommate Tracy’s (Red, White, and Blue's Amanda Fuller) uber-bitch friend Erin (a hilariously insidious Fabienne Therese) who never misses a chance to dampen Sarah’s inner flame.
The supporting cast do just that, elevating Essoe’s central turn – she couldn’t soar the way she does on her own – and while they aren’t given the same showcase opportunities, all seize the given moments and deliver brilliantly. Alongside Fuller and Therese in Sarah’s social circle are Shane Coffey, Natalie Castillo, and Noah Segen, the last of whom carries a barely concealed torch for the group’s resident wounded bird. On the other side of the casting table are Maria Olsen, Marc Senter, and the splendidly sinister Louis Dezseran as the devilishly charming and charmingly devilish producer who promises his starlet a new life ... and makes good, though it is hardly the life she imagines. Longtime fave Pat Healy puts in a memorable appearance as Sarah’s shifty, put-upon Big Taters manager.
DarkSky’s recent home video release is worthy of the film, packed with delicious supplemental materials that include behind-the-scene goodies, a sharp and wide-eyed audio commentary track by Kolsch and Widmeyer who reveal the struggles and triumphs in bringing their vision to the screen, detailing their successful Kickstarter campaign, and DarkSky’s subsequent involvement on a production level. Even here, however, it is Essoe’s original audition tapes that deliver the most visceral bang for the buck. Imagining being in the room with THAT sends the mind a-reeling.
Starry Eyes is available now on DVD/BR (as well as VOD on Amazon and iTunes) from DarkSky Films and can be ordered HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine