Starry Night

Institute History

  • 1997 June Screenwriters Lab


Billy Ryan has lived his entire thirty-one years in a small, cluttered apartment in the South Bronx with his mother. Once a vibrant woman, Mary Ryan is now dying of cancer. In the living room, Billy cares for his mother and ministers to her increasing pain with street drugs from the local pharmacist. Behind his closed bedroom door, he shuts his eyes and arrives in the great west; conjuring skewed scenes of wide open spaces and endless sky.

Billy goes out for bread, medicine, and to barter for old western paperbacks that he reads out loud in the evenings to Mrs. Ryan's delight. He accompanies the stories with music, bad acting and frothy eighty proof Grasshoppers.

Outside the apartment, Billy keeps to himself and occasionally plays with Tio, a ten year old street kid. They silently and comically track each other through the streets and engage in mock gun fights. Seen through the eyes of these two cowboys, the desolate urban landscape of burnt out buildings and empty lots becomes an old west town.

In the apartment adjoining the Ryans, retired New York City detective John Flynn eavesdrops on his neighbor's life. While Flynn takes an almost obsessive interest in the Ryans, Billy guards against the intrusion. The one person Billy awkwardly tries to connect with is Felicia, a pretty Latina girl who works at the corner bodega. Despite his social ineptitude and Felicia's father's coarse reminders of the Ryans' long overdue account, Billy tries his best. The results are comical and painful.

The limitations of Billy's insular existence become increasingly apparent as Mrs. Ryan's pain and dependency grow each day. The escalating threat and anxiety begin to permeate Billy's intensifying daydreams. If the two are ever to realize their waking dream of a better life—if Billy is ever to see the starry night that his mother has promised exists beyond the city—the time is now or never. He must get himself and his mother out. Desperate and without means, he hatches a plan.

With meticulous preparation, he devises a scheme to rob the money courier for the crack house across the street. It will be simple. He gets the money and no one gets hurt—the gun is only for persuasive leverage. It goes like clockwork and the courier is handing over the cash when, suddenly, Billy is forced to make a decision he had not planned on . . . and he pulls the trigger.

Back at the apartment, Billy tells his mother that he's made all the arrangements for the trip. She knows he needs to go, but now that the time has come she also knows she can't make it; she is too weak and in too much pain. She convinces him that she needs his help to end it. He puts a record on the phonograph, pours a class of champagne and prepares her needle. Billy leaves, the old record begins to skip and Flynn, who has been listening through the wall, goes next door and discovers Mary Ryan's body.

After paying off his account and saying goodbye to Felicia, Billy gets into a gypsy cab, throws a wad of bills into the front seat and tells the cabbie to head west. Flynn is close behind.

The story ends in a gas station in New Jersey when, once again, good intentions come to a violent end. As the life drains out of Billy, the sky darkens from blue to black and, all at once, fills with a million bright stars. With his mother's promise of a starry sky at last fulfilled, we hear Billy's voice, "We made it, ma . . . and you were right."


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