The entertainment industry is not a place for the weak and vulnerable, and Hollywood is its epicenter. For every aspiring actor who catches a break and goes on to have a long-lasting career, there are thousands who either get gobbled up by celebrity or stagger away from the business with nothing to show for it but their own broken dreams. Sarah Walker (Alexandra Essoe) wants more than anything to be one of the lucky ones. Barely scraping by with a miserable day job at a fast-food dive called Big Taters, she spends her free time heading to auditions and enduring the insecure, passive-aggressive remarks of her mostly toxic circle of fame-hungry friends. When she happens upon a casting call for the lead role in reputable studio Astraeus Pictures' upcoming horror movie, "The Silver Scream," she jumps at the chance to try out. Her first audition goes poorly, but then she is unexpectedly pulled back into the room for a second shot after the casting director (Maria Olsen) catches her having a violent meltdown in a restroom stall. They want her to repeat exactly that, vicious hair-ripping and all, and Sarah decides to give herself over to this extreme method approach. In her drive to do whatever possible for the role, however, she stands to sacrifice far more than just her dignity.
A savage allegory about the sacrificial, soul-crushing price of fame and recognition in a town notoriously guilty for building up its talent only to tear them down, the perfectly titled "Starry Eyes" spares no one. Shooting on location in Los Angeles (presumably without permits alongside the more recognizable landmarks), writer-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer paint a despairing but, from certain angles, accurate portrait of Hollywood's grim underbelly. Beyond the sunshine and palm trees is an imminent danger that nears, each callback Sarah receives taking her closer to the part and further from her identity. When a meeting at the gated mansion of a lecherous older film producer (Louis Dezseran) begins with deceptive hopefulness and ends with a degrading proposition, she rebuffs his advances, then wonders if he would be willing to give her a second chance. She needn't have worried; Astraeus Pictures is waiting for her call and not about to let her go.
Alexandra Essoe has purged seemingly all the demons hidden in her subconscious to play Sarahor, more likely, she is just a supremely fine actor. The troubled heroine of the piece as well as her own worst enemy, Sarah makes a decision to put her flagging self-esteem and iffy mental stability on the line for the one thing she wants in life above all else. Where her journey for vindication and fame takes her is as lonesome and unnerving as the rattle of the Hollywood sign upon a witch's wind. A lot is demanded of Essoe both emotionally and physically, and she comes through with a plethora of haunting internal and external distortions that fully transform her character to the core. If Sarah had begun the movie as a more warmly likable young woman, there is the chance that the changes she experiences as the film proceeds would have resonated more deeply. That Kolsch and Widmyer establish her somewhat chilly discordance and prickly volatility from the start ensures, on the other hand, the believability that comes with her being so easily seduced by sinister promises.
"If you can't fully let yourself go, how can you turn into someone else?" the stern, purse-lipped casting director asks during an early audition. In "Starry Eyes," Sarah takes this piece of advice and says good-bye to herself in the process. Passing into pitch-black psychological recesses, the picture's brutal third act frightens and appalls just as it should. Soaked in viscera and complemented by composer Jonathan Snipes' phenomenally foreboding old-school, synth-heavy music score, the powerful finished product announces Kolsch and Widmyer as filmmaking forces to watch and remember. In tone and milieu, it also pleasingly evokes Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath's criminally overlooked, equally harrowing 2012 sucker-punch "Entrance
," and that is a comparison of which to be proud. It has often been said that Hollywood changes people. "Starry Eyes" disturbingly, unforgettably takes this adage to the literal brink, then pushes far beyond it for chillingly good measure.