Carny (1980)

Carny (1980)

“A carnival ain’t even a real carnival without a sideshow — everyone knows that!”

After falling for a carnival worker (Gary Busey), 18-year-old Donna (Jodie Foster) decides to run away from home and join the troupe.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Carnival and Circuses
  • Elisha Cook Jr. Films
  • Gary Busey Films
  • Jodie Foster Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Runaways

Jodie Foster turned in her second powerhouse performance of the year — see also Foxes (1981) — in this cult favorite about carnival life behind the scenes. Gary Busey is equally compelling as Frankie: he recognizes that his new relationship with Foster is troublesome to his longtime friend (Robbie Robertson), yet isn’t sure how to handle the “love” triangle that emerges. Director Robert Kaylor does an impressive job portraying both the authentic seaminess of carny life (carnies are shown openly conning customers), and the mundanity (we see workers pacing out where to set up stalls). Yet Carny‘s script leaves much to be desired. There are countless subplots which are never developed, and the film’s denouement is unsatisfying at best. Plus, unlike in Tod Browning’s masterful Freaks (1932), Kaylor doesn’t provide the remaining sideshow performers with well-rounded humanity; they seem present simply for atmosphere and “authenticity”. Despite its flaws, however, Carny makes for oddly compelling, visceral viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jodie Foster as Donna
  • Gary Busey as Frankie
  • An authentic look at the seediness of carnival life
  • Alex North’s appropriately creepy score

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for its status as a cult favorite.


One thought on “Carny (1980)

  1. Not a must.

    Finally saw this, after years of not being able to track it down.

    I agree that the carnival life is depicted with appropriate atmosphere. But, honestly, aside from that, I don’t get the cult appeal here – mainly because I also agree that the script (loaded with ho-hum dialogue) is wanting; very much so. We get a lot of info about what makes a carnival tick – and the difficulties that life faces from the outside and within – but not much of what we learn is surprising or particularly enlightening. I don’t find that the acting here is such great shakes either (although Foster is very believable when she is conning a couple of other young female things in low, seductive tones).

    My mind wandered. Eh.

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