Giving it Her All: STARRY EYES (2014)

I’ve only skimmed the reviews for Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch’s Starry Eyes. I will read them, I always like hearing what other people think of films I find interesting, but I wanted to get some impressions down first.

Without having read any proper write-ups, it was still difficult to avoid two things about Starry Eyes before setting aside the hour and a half needed to VOD it: A) there was positive buzz coming off the film and B) the word “throwback” was getting tossed around.

Let’s handle those things in the order they were received.

Good buzz is good buzz. Positive word of mouth is encouraging. It means that I’ll want to prioritize sitting down with a movie, but having the black t-shirt crowd* on board with a movie doesn’t always translate to said movie being any good.

And a “throwback”? In the day of digitally-lensed films slapping on artificial cigarette burns and intentionally camping up the dialogue to disguise their real, unintentional shortcomings, the term “throwback” has become a red flag.

For Starry Eyes, though, the label isn’t solely warranted by the use of a copyright slug on the title card and a punchy synthesizer score (Jonathan Snipes), but the fact that the film feels classical in both its construction and execution. Starry Eyes is a “throwback” in the right sense, to a time when genre films weren’t pandering lobs meant to appeal to either the broadest possible teeny bopper audiences or the most niche of gorehounds and nobody in between.

Starry Eyes could be accurately described as Rosemary’s Baby meets A Star is Born. It concerns Sarah, a young actress in Hollywood struggling to land a role, any role, who is ultimately offered the lead in a horror film from a prestigious, but ailing, production company. What she has to do to seal the deal? Well, that’s where the horror comes in.

There’s metacommentary in the film, but the whole thing is played far less winky and self-aware than that synopsis makes it sound. The successful tone has to do with how believable Sarah’s world of dead end jobs, obnoxious parties, and panic attack-inducing auditions is presented in the first half. Take away the supernatural element and you’d be left with a fairly scathing, if authentic, portrait of modern Hollywood.

There’s so much refreshing about Starry Eyes, but nothing about it is better than its central performance. Alexandra Essoe elevates what, in an alternate reality, could have been a neat little indie movie of ideas hamstrung by its reliance on its star, into an actor’s showcase. Much like the central conceit of her character, Essoe is special, a cut above. She brings a vulnerability to the role that makes it very easy to sympathize with her character’s choices. Even from the first sequence–a party scene in which we learn that Sarah has missed out on a part in a commercial to her roommate’s friend (the distinction between her real friends and her “Hollywood” friends becoming important later on)–we buy that Sarah is a person who has been dealing with the stressors of trying to make it long before the opening credits.

The rest of the cast, which includes Fabianne Therese (the aforementioned roommate’s friend, playing an unlikable character in the best possible way), Noah Segan (of Looper and Dead Girl fame) and Pat Healy (whose inclusion in each year’s crop of standout genre films is starting to feel obligatory), performs admirably. But this is Essoe’s show.

The metaphor at the center of Starry Eyes works because it isn’t that much of a metaphor. Hollywood frequently destroys its bright young things, even the ones who “make it.” The film plays this idea broadly, but broad doesn’t always mean over-obvious or preachy. There is enough subtext (cultural, social, sexual, you name it) left unexpurgated to mull over as the credits roll, especially the events of the film’s final fifteen minutes.

I’m betting that many will label Starry Eyes a “slow burn” but at an economical 98 minutes, many of those minutes filled with thrills and dread, I’d say that’s a bit of a misnomer. Still, looking at the ending, I can understand why some will jump to call the film a Ti West-esque slow burn.

I so badly want to talk about specifics but I also don’t want to spoil anything. I will say that things escalate quickly in the third act, almost too quickly, making you think we’ve dropped a reel or have sat on the remote and switched to a different film (something inspired by the Mansons, maybe?). But the final two sequences–the resolution and the kicker–have a kind of restorative power and place the film’s unexpected bursts of action and brutality into a very earned context.

So, yes, it’s a throwback and there’s clearly some other filmic DNA kicking around in there (satanic panic chillers, body horror, and even some folk horror, regular readers know how that stuff revs my engines) but there’s also an undeniably modern quality to Starry Eyes. In a genre that’s obsessive about looking back to the “glory” days, the Hollywood presented and commented on in the film is today’s.

Possibly the best accolade to bestow on Starry Eyes, a film whose virtues are many (a great central performance, smart script, nice cinematography, a winning score), is that it is a real film. It not only tells a compelling story but carries with it a handful of compelling questions, all of which are worth asking and most are satisfactorily explored.

Highly recommended.

*This is a term I’m borrowing/paraphrasing from Jeremy Robert Johnson, I think.

Okay. Review is done. In other news, the paperback edition of my third novel, Exponential, is now shipping through amazon, Barnes & Noble, direct from Samhain Publishing, and wherever else. The ebook drops Tuesday (tomorrow).

Do with this information what you will.

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