Starry Eyes is a difficult movie to pin down. On the surface, it’s a horror story that calls to mind Ti West’s The House Of The Devil (i.e. it’s a slow burn with gradually escalating tension and an utterly insane final act). There’s perhaps more of a social commentary aspect to Starry Eyes, so on that level the screenplay feels vaguely ambitious, like it’s trying to make a point. But I’m not entirely sure how successful it is in doing so.
The story concerns an aspiring actress, Sarah (played by Alex Essoe). She winds up getting an audition for a role that could be her big break. At first it seems to go terribly. She has an incredibly awkward experience with two humourless and condescending casting agents (played by Marc Senter and Maria Olsen). But then she gets a callback, so it looks like she might have a shot at this role after all. Only in order to secure the part she has to… Ahem. Well, I’ll let you imagine.
Essoe gives an excellent performance in the lead role. You see her completely stressing out as she grapples with these potentially life-altering decisions. She’s stuck in a dead-end job as a server at “Taters” (the movie’s analogue to Hooters), so this role could be her ticket to something better.
The scenes of Sarah struggling through auditions feel heightened, but still based to some degree in reality. Everyone, actor or not, has these moments of self-doubt and anxiety. Sometimes the thing you want seems almost within your grasp, but then you lose your cool and it all goes wrong. Or maybe you get a second chance, and it turns out you can reach your goal after all. But then what you get isn’t what you thought it was going to be. As a chronicle of one person’s ups-and-downs, Starry Eyes starts out in a place that feels very true to life.
It’s to the film’s credit that when things take a turn for the weird and macabre later on, it still feels tonally right. It’s as if all the apprehension from the earlier scenes is manifesting itself onscreen.
Where Starry Eyes loses me along the way is when it’s not focusing on Sarah. She spends a lot of time in the film just doing nothing much and hanging out with her friends. Or maybe I should say “friends” in quotation marks, because some of them seem to be genuinely terrible people.
Case in point: Erin (played by Fabianne Therese). Erin is the queen of passive aggression, constantly peppering Sarah with dumb questions like “Don’t you think it’s kind of a longshot?” or “Don’t you think you’re a little overdressed?” and so on and so forth. It’s annoying at first, but once you recognize what she’s doing, Erin is actually kind of fun. As you watch, you try to predict what criticism-veiled-as-innocent-observation she’s going to lob next.
These scenes of Sarah and co. just goofing around don’t really serve the plot much. There’s a teensy bit of character development, like I mentioned with Erin. And you also have Danny (played by Noah Segan). He’s a wannabe director who’s working on a script. The movie tries to make something out of whether the main role in said script will go to Sarah or Erin, but it never particularly goes anywhere with that thread.
I mentioned social commentary before, and if I’m being generous, that’s what I call these secondary scenes. Maybe it’s an observation of the vapidity of youth. Or the disconnect between supposed friends that causes them to turn on each other in the pursuit of some imagined shot at glory. But like I said, that’s being generous. The truth is all this stuff is rather meandering. It feels like it’s only there to pad out the runtime, and give us a breather from the intensity of the main plot. It’s not awful stuff, but it drags the movie down.
The other thing is that by leaving so many of Sarah’s friends so thinly sketched, it feels like the movie is going out of its way to get us on her side and wants us not to care about anyone else. To me, this feels like a mistake. Ultimately, Sarah goes blundering down a particular path and leaves chaos in her wake. And yet her supposed friends are barely established as people, so their fates don’t carry any weight.
Of course, this analysis might run counter to the intentions of the filmmakers. Maybe I’m overthinking things. Maybe they don’t want you to care about these other people. (But then, why spend any time at all developing them? Argh.) Maybe they were just trying to make something gory and atmospheric and fun. If that’s what you’re after, then the last third of this movie will probably do something for you. There is enjoyment to be had here on that level. I got my share of visceral thrills. I just feel like Starry Eyes is halfway between trying to make a point and trying to be a slasher flick and it doesn’t quite succeed at either.