SXSW 2014: Starry Eyes movie review

The story centers around hopeful actress Sarah (Alex Essoe) juggling a demeaning fast food job with the challenges of auditions and rejections and all else that comes with being a young woman in a brutal and unforgiving profession. Even her friends seem to have two sides to them – on the one hand being supportive and fun and communal but on the other being biting and callous and quick to highlight failure in the most passive-aggressive of ways.

None more so than Erin (The Aggression Scale‘s Fabianne Therese) who is the kind of smiling, supportive villain one could imagine in the life of nearly every creative person’s pursuit of a their chosen profession. Therese plays this role with such a deft tone and sharp point that you feel her condescension as if it was directed at you. So often, this ‘bitchy friend’ character is played at fifth gear at all times, but in this film her bile is measured and calculated and meaner precisely because it isn’t overblown. Hats off to both the directors and actor Fabianne Therese for handling this character in a full and human way.

But really, this story and the success of it all boil down to lead Alex Essoe. Her innocent demeanor and hopefulness not only make her a prime target for those who would mean her harm, but endear her to the audience. It is this relatability that proves not only her undoing but the viewers as well once she sets about a path to destruction and dehumanization. Without her honest reaction of hurt shown from ‘friendly barbs’ thrown at her early on and without the change in her that evolves so elegantly and naturally and frightfully  over the course of the film, it would be as if the whole thing existed in a vacuum. Interesting to a point but not relatable or compelling.

But instead, her grounded quality is played against the wills of some seriously screwed up producers on an auction she gets called for and subsequently cast from – a perfect opportunity. So much so that she contemplates quitting her job and going full into this project to which the potential dangers she seems blissfully unaware. But her lies the question at the heart of this film, is she aware or isn’t she? Is she a victim of these manipulative and evil influences, or, does she make a conscious decision to take them on full board?

It is a fascinating question to think about well after the film ends because you really aren’t given time to work it out once she becomes involved in the production. The people at the head of the project want reality in its truest form and they force it out of her initially and push her both physically and mentally to the point at which Sarah becomes secondary and a stronger, more primal thing emerges.

One could argue that the her transformation and all that happens to her are symbolic of the dehumanizing of the individual in the pursuit of fame. However the film doesn’t wallow too much in the dreamscapes and trappings of navel gazing when it comes to this subject. Sarah’s dive into this path is felt in the course of the film by a graphic and ugly evolution into a more primal, more dangerous creature to the point where the individual we all related to is essentially swallowed up by this urge, this desire. This creature.

And when I say creatures, I do not mince words. The way in which the film deals with what this change really means is something of ugly, disgusting beauty. The loss of humanity, the loss of self is shown in not only physical changes but behavioral ones too and so not only are we forced to deal with what we see but also what we feel for her and the version of Sarah we care for that we’re losing minute by minute. Again, with a less capable actor this journey is uninteresting but with Essoe’s brave attack on this character from both ends of the spectrum, it becomes utterly dynamic to watch.

Coupled with this unsettling path, we are also confronted with brutal, intimate violence of the most unflinching kind. There is a focused eye on the damage and hatred wrought on the innocent (or quasi innocent) bystanders of this story and it is something to see. Without giving the viewer a release valve or a chance to breathe, this film instead holds its eye on the bloody and mean outcomes of each step in its path. Couple this intimacy of violence with the washes of dark shadows and grained out colors blending together and you get a nightmarish mix of imagery that does not give much breathing room and certainly not much space for light to make its way through.

There are some bumpy transitions in tone as the story progresses but one could make a sound argument that those tonal changes are directly related to the mental state and general disposition of our main character. The darker everything becomes, the more dangerous and more violent, so goes the stability of Sarah. So really, her path can be felt not only in what we see of her but what we feel by everything surrounding her.

It is in this, the culmination of all of it, that we either take it as it is given or we attach meaning to what we think it might mean. On the surface level, it is an ucky, grimy and viscous story delving into a dark outlook on fame and self-sacrifice. But if you dig deeper and replace visceral grossness for symbolic meaning, you get a far more unsettling drama about what it means to give up yourself to become something you never thought, deep down, that you could be. Because in the end, the destination is only valuable if you haven’t given up every part of your humanity to get there. Starry Eyes gets right to the heart of that question in a most scary and satisfying way.

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