An unusually bright, inspired look at the perils of breaking into the acting business, multihyphenate Debra Eisenstadt’s “Daydream Believer” reps sure-footed guerrilla filmmaking. Shot improvisationally on the streets of New York, with Eisenstadt and her digital video camera functioning as part and parcel crew, this Jury Prize winner for best dramatic feature at this year’s Slamdance Festival is suffused with a wry, weary truthfulness rare among backstage theatrical comedies. Though low-key pic looks to have marginal, if any, theatrical life, it should serve as an excellent calling card for Eisenstadt and her talented star, Sybil Kempson.
Early moments suggest a Dogme-style “Noises Off,” with aspiring actress Valerie (Kempson) nobly trudging through an audition for the lead role in a new play by Boyd (Gladden Schrock), an egotistical writer-director at a community theater in Vermont. Such pompous theatrical types take a good-natured ribbing throughout “Daydream Believer,” but so do overeager aspiring actresses.
Valerie takes Boyd’s play, and just about everything else in her life, with undue seriousness. Later, she jumps at the opportunity to move to New York City and work on an Off Off Broadway production, no matter that the offer is coming from Kent Black (Louis Puopolo), a minor TV star in playwright’s clothing.
Head-in-the-clouds Valerie can’t quite look at anything level-headedly, but that doesn’t make her quest for stardom any less endearing. And in turn, one of the qualities that makes Eisenstadt’s film so engaging is her ability to view Valerie from a critical distance.
On its surface, “Daydream Believer” resembles one of those faux-inspirational melodramas about mustering up the gumption to leave behind small-town attachments and follow big-city fantasies. But Eisenstadt is much too attuned to the chance nature of fame and celebrity to turn Valerie’s story into a
modern-day Cinderella tale a la “Coyote Ugly.” Here, hopes and dreams are as likely to be quashed as they are to come true, and the moral of the fable is less about getting what you want than about finding out that you never really knew what you wanted in the first place.
Pic’s title is quite deceptive for a movie that so consistently debunks conventional movie notions of how a star (or, at least, a sense of self-worth) is born. Beyond that, Eisenstadt takes success itself as a subject, showing that it is achieved, in all disciplines, in increments greatly disproportionate to its psychological and emotional costs.
None of this is particularly novel, and this is unquestionably a modest film of modest ambitions. But virtuoso visual compositions and Jenifer Jackson’s propulsive song score inject a convincing directness into familiar scenes.
In a fearless performance, Kempson perfectly grasps Valerie’s simultaneous fragility and indomitability. Moment-to-moment, Kempson and Eisenstadt grab indelible fragments of experience — Valerie forced to dole out food samples while dressed in a chicken suit; Valerie’s shallow neighbor landing her own daytime TV show — and run them from humor to sorrow and back again at a breathless clip that blurs notions of easy sentimentality.