So far at this year's SXSW Film Festival, I've seen a probably unhealthy amount of indelible images. In the see-it-to-believe-it German gross-out dramedy Wetlands, for example, four disgruntled pizza shop employees decorate a pie with ejaculate—yup, no kidding. In the exceptional creep-out Honeymoon, a long, slithery, alive object gets yanked out of a woman's private region. And in the midnight movie highlight Starry Eyes, one unlucky female's head gets bashed in with a dumbbell, and the camera is fastened on every visceral blow.

Yet, four days into SXSW, the visual that keeps ringing in my mind, more so than any of those ghastly images, is the sight of Starry Eyes lead actress Alexandra Essoe yanking her own hair out. Her character, Sara Walker, has been doing that since she was a little girl—it's how she copes with disappointment, or sadness, or whatever else fuels her inner depression. All grown-up in Starry Eyes, Sara is living the thankless, defeat-heavy grind of a struggling actress trying to become a movie star in Los Angeles. Following one failed audition after another, Sara's unhappiness manifests itself in her hands, the tools she uses to violently pull strands of her clean off of her scalp. Each yank is accentuated by booms on the soundtrack. It's beauty destroying itself, or at least attempting to, but she can't even do that effectively.

Starry Eyes, written and directed by first-timers Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch, is an impressive piece of work. Straddling the line between Hollywood satire and occultist nightmare, the film posits ambition as its villain—Sara will do whatever it takes to become famous, and it's that insatiable desire that makes her do things she knows aren't right. Like getting sexual with the elder producer of The Silver Scream, a new horror film being made by the enigmatic company Astraeus Films, a once-prominent brand that's become a punch line. It's also, as Sara finds out, a malevolent cult seeking wannabe starlets to corrupt. But Sara latches onto the interest shown by Astraeus' eccentric casting directors, two oddballs who respond to how she hurts herself, make her disrobe, and subject her to phantasmagoric lightshow that Widmyer and Klosch stage with stroboscopic impact that'd make French director Gaspar Noe smile. Widmyer and Klosch cleverly write the character as someone who's not aloof to what's happening around her—she's just incapable of resisting the dark side.

That's the driving force between Starry Eyes, and it all rests on Alexandra Essoe to sell every moment. Fortunately for Widmyer and Klosch, she's a revelation. Statuesque and gorgeous, she's believable as someone who could one day be a desirable movie star; terrifically able to embody and transmit Sara's despair without ever devolving into melodrama or hokey theatrics, she adds strong dramatic gravitas to the film's superficial pleasures. Composer Jonathan Snipes's score is pure '80s retro, tapping into the throwback aesthetic of recent movies like Drive and last year's Maniac remake but with a darker, edgier bend. Starry Eyesis an exhibition of heavily stylized visuals and sounds, yet Essoe's performance is ever-present.

Much will be said about Starry Eyes' final act, a barrage of murder, bloodshed, and ritualistic cultism. And, deservedly, Widmyer and Klosch will be awarded props for intelligently merging the black comedy of Hollywood failure with the Cronenberg-like body horror and slasher-movie brutality. But, for me, Alexandra Essoe is the main reason why Starry Eyes will stick with me long after SXSW concludes. I can still see her, as Sara, punishing herself by painfully uprooting all of those follicles. The secondhand trauma is something special.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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