There are plenty of (usually independently produced) movies that take firm aim on the "eat 'em up and spit 'em out" nature of Hollywood. (My favorites are Swimming with Sharks, Living in Oblivion, The Player, and The Day of the Locust.) But while those films are satirical and often very funny deconstructions of The Hollywood Machine, the new indie horror film Starry Eyes is sort of a kick-straight-to-the nuts of the film industry.
You could probably figure out the plot of Starry Eyes if I described the film as "Faust in lower-middle class Los Angeles," but we can get just a little more specific than that: Sarah (Alexandra Essoe) is a sweet but emotionally fragile young ingenue who, like virtually everyone in Hollywood under the age of 30, dreams of being a movie star. More specifically, old-school '40s-era Hollywood stardom is what Sarah is looking for. Unfortunately the only production company in town that seems to offer that package is "Astraeus Pictures," and while the plainly desperate Sarah is initially skeptical of the "overnight sensation" package... it doesn't take long before the miseries of reality compel the wannabe starlet into a virtual deal with the devil.
The debut feature from co-writer/directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer, Starry Eyes is sort of like a low-key, low-budget Black Swan that focuses on the grungier side of Hollywood instead of the harrowing spotlight of the ballet stage. Astute genre fans will of course note the Faustian influences and a few cool splashes of full-bore graphic horror once Sarah's tale starts to get ugly; in truth there's not much to the premise of Starry Eyes we haven't seen before. Even the symbolism is familiar. (Suffice to say that several characters earn grim and ironic demises.)
But if Starry Eyes is simply an old story about morality and immortality that's being re-told with a new perspective, and it is, then kudos to the filmmakers for re-telling the story with some innovation. Whether or not you can predict where Sarah's unpleasant journey is headed, leading lady Alex Essoe is an absolute revelation. The newcomer has to run through a dozen different extremes in this movie -- from adorable to haunted to horrific to horrified -- and she never slows down or misses a note. That Starry Eyes offers uniformly strong work from its supporting cast (particularly Noah Segan as a wannabe producer who actually has a decent side, and Amanda Fuller, as a roommate who is clearly conflicted about Sarah's disturbing behavior) is crucial to the film's success, but it's Ms. Essoe who deserves most of the spotlight in this ensemble.
Starry Eyes is elevated immeasurably by its leading lady, but the darkly insightful screenplay also "nails" the Hollywood aspirant archetype perfectly, the flick never stays in one place for too long, and it closes with a third act that works as psychological horror, Grand Guignol, and a nightmarish tragedy all at the same time. This might not be the first time you've heard the "deal with the devil" set-up, but hey; Starry Eyes deftly illustrates the ways in which Hollywood can turn a sweet, fractured girl into a egomaniacal monster. Actors often talk about putting their soul on the screen, and here's a harsh horror movie that shows what that might look like.