Ambition is slippery. It can lead to true greatness, and it can help you change the world. It can also lead to absolute darkness, and it can make you destroy everyone around you. It’s all about how you pursue ambition. Starry Eyes is a cautionary tale about doing it wrong. Or maybe it’s a cautionary tale about what it costs to do it right.
Sarah is an actress in Los Angeles. One of very, very many. She works at a shitty, exploitative fast food joint - Big Taters - and she hangs out with a crowd of arty Millennial hopefuls who are maybe spending more time having pool parties than actually getting anywhere with their careers. But Sarah doesn’t want to wait around, and when an audition comes up with the prestigious Atreus Pictures, she gives it her all. Which in this case means opening up her most private and personal oddities and then, finally, submitting to the casting couch.
What happens next is… well, it’s what makes Starry Eyes a horror film, but it’s also what makes Starry Eyes a smart, incisive jab at the culture of Hollywood ambition. There’s gory, hyperviolent murder, truly fucking disgusting body horror (Sarah vomits up a bellyful of writhing meal worms) and some sly swipes at the cult of Scientology along the way to a perfectly chilling climax.
Alex Essoe is phenomenal as Sarah. The lengths to which this character will go could make her unlikable, but Essoe sp ably communicates to us the deep yearning she has for classical stardom that it’s hard not to side with her, even as she’s bashing people’s faces in. Essoe finds the desperation that boils just under the surface of all wannabe stars, but she also finds the determination that marks the difference between those who want and those who get.
That balance also comes from writers/directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, who have layered in just enough low-level Hollywood truth to keep things interesting until they get to their grand guignol finale. Starry Eyes isn’t a slow burn so much as it’s a strong build up, and once it gets where it’s going the film becomes explosively violent and shocking. Widmyer and Kolsch jump between satire and real emotion just enough that you get their wicked points while also still caring about the characters who get caught in the crossfire of Sarah’s craving for celebrity.
Essoe is supported by a very talented cast, none more so than Pat Healy, who is going to be one of those character actors who gets major retrospectives in fifteen years. His work here is, like always, effortless and natural, while nailing the exact tone the movie needs. He’s Sarah’s manager at Big Taters, and he’s at once a sleazeball and a guy you feel bad for - like everyone else in this movie he’s just chasing his own weird dream, which happens to be hot girls serving burgers in hot pants.
Badass Digest contributor Noah Segan breaks type to play the nice guy here, a wannabe director who, if things turned out less sinister, could have helped Sarah get to the top through hard work. The other member of Sarah’s social circle who truly stands out is Fabienne Therese as the casually competitive, constantly catty friend who is always trying to undermine Sarah’s confidence. It’s a delightful role, and Therese plays it with relish. On the other side of the divide Marc Senter is delicious as The Assistant, who brings Sarah into the world of Astreus. Opposite Senter is Maria Olsen as The Casting Director, playing her role with such creepy menace that you wonder why, despite having 125 credits since 2008 (!!!) she isn’t better known, or better used.
Starry Eyes is a low budget film, but Kolsch and Widmyer make good use of Los Angeles locations to make it feel bigger. More than that, they’ve invested heavily in the script, writing a movie with character and theme… and a gloriously bloody climax. Usually you only get one or the other (or, increasingly with cheapie DTV horror in the post-Ti West world, neither), but Starry Eyes - like its lead character - wants to have it all.