(Spoilers ahead for ‘Starry Eyes,’ starring Alexandra Essoe, written and directed by Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer)
Starry Eyes tells the story of Sarah, a girl hell-bent on becoming an actress. In a tale as old as time, Sarah is offered the role of a lifetime by a powerful producer. In addition to his typically disgusting terms, there is a little wrinkle a la Rosemary’s Baby. The price of fame is high in this one, and it opens up a hell of a lot of conversations about women, choices, consent and societal perception of all of the above. And did I mention that this is a body horror? A highly realistic looking body horror?
Phew. Okay. Buckle up. There is a lot to unpack in this one.
First of all, Sarah has clearly been at this for a while. She lives with a roommate, Tracy, who, to her credit, seems like a genuine friend. She celebrates and encourages Sarah’s auditions, and commiserates with her when they don’t go according to plan. She has two fellow actresses orbiting her world, mutual friends of Tracy’s. One is a perpetual follower, parroting the other’s snide looks but mostly staying quiet. The other is the classic frenemy, a mean girl who Sarah is perpetually trying to impress, or at least hide her failed auditions from.
In a bout of seriously impressive acting from our lead, Alexandra Essoe, Sarah breaks down upon being told “Thanks, but no thanks” by a duo behind a desk that look like a horror movie version of Doctor Evil and his Fraulein. She goes to the washroom, where you would assume that she would take a moment to compose herself.
Nope. It is too late for that. This has sent Sarah right over the edge. Inside a stall, which offers zero protection for sound, she has a tantrum to end all tantrums. She yells, screams, bashes at the stall with her bag. And just when you think that she is a spoiled brat, and maybe she should just give it up already, things take a dark turn when she sits on the edge of the toilet and performs some pretty disturbing self-harm. That’s the moment that you know that however this goes, Sarah will do anything. Her sense of self-worth is so tied up in succeeding that failure is not an option. She has nothing else in her life except for this dream.
Upon coming out of the stall, Creepy Henchwoman is waiting for her. She calls her back to the audition room, and asks her very matter of factly to perform what she just did in the bathroom. As this private moment becomes fodder for an audition reel, you see just how far she is willing to go, and know that it doesn’t bode well for the future.
As Sarah’s path predictably takes her in a sweet little dress to a creepy producer’s home, she is propositioned in full view of Creepy Henchwoman, who just sits there looking bored. She’s seen this all before. In a refreshing change of pace, however, she says no. Hallelujah! She comes home to her roommate, who calls him a creep and fully supports her (for a second, I was worried we were going to get the ‘It’s just sex!’ type of exchange). Her world goes on as usual.
Here’s where the movie gets into some murky territory.
After some time away from the creepy producer, she calls him, returns to his home….and says yes. Ick.
The movie continues on a typical path from here…if she is willing to give up her old life and make a shocking sacrifice, she can prove that she is worthy of the time of this creepy Satan-worshipping cult. She must make a choice. And her choice is fame, wealth, and beauty. The cost is high, and comes about in a shockingly blood soaked finale.
My knee-jerk response was to absolutely HATE that she went back and said yes. She thought it over, she wasn’t taken off guard, she had some distance from the situation and wasn’t being coerced. And in the end, she chose to sell out all of her morals for this shot at fame in a crappy, low-budget movie. In these types of stories, the main character becomes almost instantly less sympathetic as they quite literally begin to become something else. I mean, seriously…did anyone think Guy Woodhouse had any redeeming qualities whatsoever? Her choices are terrible, and she is willing to throw everything about herself away for this.
But it begs the question: isn’t this honest? She is coerced by a man in power, and her choice is actually more limited here than we think. This producer may have the ability to not only make the decisions in a specific circumstance, but what about the future? There is the real possibility that a guy like this has the clout to make sure that she struggles forever, creating obstacles through his many connections. And the fact that she is not sympathetic after this? It’s a direct result of the lens that victims are unfortunately viewed through. “She knew what she was doing. She didn’t say no. She wore that low-cut dress.” The fact that these situations are about power and not about sex goes out the window, and the conversation becomes about the woman’s character.
In the end, Sarah makes these terrible choices, because she doesn’t really have a choice at all. The audience can see this in both the way that she tries and tries to justify it to people and herself, and also in how she struggles with accepting the change. Her friends don’t make that same choice. They actually hated her decision to go back, and shame her for making it. But guess what? They aren’t successful in their field, and she is. The message that she has to give up a huge part of herself to get what she wants is terrible, but it doesn’t make it any less true, particularly in an industry like showbiz. In many ways, the way the audience views Sarah by the end is, in fact, the way that society has viewed this kind of behaviour in show business for decades. “It’s just the way it is” is a mantra that makes these kinds of stories predictable and not so shocking anymore. Succeeding on her merit and strength of character without being sexualized in some way is sadly not the believable narrative coming out of Hollywood anymore. It is not the story that people believe, so it is not the story that we’re going to get anytime soon.
Hopefully, we can gain momentum on changing the narrative of this story. The fact that these kinds of stories are gaining attention is encouraging. Let’s just make sure that we keep the conversation going, and make sure that those impacted by these behaviours are heard.