Starry Eyes Review from SXSW 2014: Expect the Unexpected

Going into Starry Eyes at South by Southwest 2014, the latest from directors/writers Dennis Widmyer & Kevin Kolsch, I was eager despite knowing very little about the film. I had the synopsis, which reads as a typical cautionary tale of an actress willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in the business, and I knew it had some incredible artwork associated with it from my personal favorite screenprint artist, Jay Shaw. More than anything, I just had a good feeling about it. Good enough of a feeling to endure cold wind and rain at the end of a long day just for a chance to see it.

As the film began and quickly cut to an excellent throwback title screen, my anticipation felt rewarded. The score, crafted exquisitely by Jonathan Snipes, was instantly entrancing and never let go. As the film’s tale begins to unravel I was mesmerized. As the film felt to be building towards a logical conclusion, it switched gears and somehow got even darker. I was floored. As soon as it was over, I wanted to watch it again immediately. If you’ve been paying attention to Twitter, you already know that I’m not alone in this.

Starry Eyes Review from SXSW 2014: Expect the Unexpected
Starry Eyes is a film obsessed with ideas of ambition and its ultimate cost. Sarah (Alexandra Essoe) is a struggling actress in the ultimate terms. She can’t catch a break with auditions. She’s working a degrading job at a Hooters knock-off. She’s also surrounded by her roommate’s friends, all fellow actors and creative types just waiting for that one big break that’s honestly never going to come. At least, not for them. Sarah, on the other hand, is one last audition away from deciding to do whatever it takes to be the star she’s always dreamed of being and possibly something more.

After failing that last audition, Sarah storms into the nearest bathroom and unleashes an inner anger on the stall and herself. She’s startled to see one of the auditioners eagerly awaiting her just outside the stall door, creepy smile and foreboding atmosphere in tow . This raw emotion and honesty is what they were looking for. They want to see more. Thus begins Sarah’s downward spiral of self-degradation in pursuit of her ultimate goals.

Starry Eyes Review from SXSW 2014: Expect the Unexpected
At a certain point the challenges presented to Sarah shift from an emotional toll to a physical one. Her own body slowly begins to turn against her and she’s left with the option of continuing to fulfill the companies demands or be left to rot from the inside out… literally. Within this narrative shift the film begins delving into a more visceral aspect of horror and succeeds overwhelmingly. There are scenes that incite cheers and turn stomachs in equal measure.

What I loved most about Starry Eyes’ tonal shift is that what feels like a cautionary tale to that point ends up as the complete opposite. The film ponders “Are you willing to become something more to reach your goals?”, but what if that something else is already lurking under the surface, just waiting to find it’s way out? What if being something built out of pure evil what was you were intended for all along. Just the fact that the film asks these questions and delivers upon them is profoundly satisfying.

Starry Eyes Review from SXSW 2014: Expect the Unexpected
The driving force of the picture is the otherworldly performance of lead Alexandra Essoe. The character of Sarah goes through many a transition throughout the film and Essoe effortlessly nails every single moment flawlessly. Some of the strongest instances show Sarah at her weakest and most fragile but somehow shifts into something that comes across as indestructible. She is wholly obsessed by the ambition to succeed and through Essoe’s brilliant performance that ambition is never once doubted. As the film continues to unravel, a certain physicality comes into the role and Essoe just continues to shine. She is the heart of the film and truly elevates it’s overall brilliance and success.

Cementing Essoe’s performance is the masterful direction and writing of Wdmyer and Kolsch. There’s a subtleness to the film, even when it dips into full on gore late in the third act, that just puts it a cut above it’s modern horror contemporaries. The pair crafted a well thought out tale and were able to present it in a completely organic and masterful way. A great sense of pace and design are also present from the get go. These guys are at the height of their game and will assuredly be names to look out for from here on out.

Starry Eyes took me places that I didn’t think modern horror was still capable of. The influences are all there on display, but it manages to feel wholly original. Every assumption I made about where the story was headed was proved wrong at every turn, much to my delight and surprise. There’s so much going on in the film thematically and even cross-genre that nothing should seemingly work at all, yet it all pays off and does so impeccably. Starry Eyes is quite easily the horror film of the year, possibly even the next 5 to 10. It is truly a must see.

out of 5

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