Starfish (2018)

Starfish first published(in a slightly shorter version) by

Grief can be apocalyptic. When somebody close dies, the overwhelming sense of loss – and the concomitant denial, regret, guilt, dissociation, depression and anger – can be devastating. It is, of course, possible to survive, and to get through to the other side, but neither the world nor you will ever be quite the same again. This is, in essence, the journey that will be taken by radio DJ Aubrey Parker (Virginia Gardner) in writer/director/composer A.T. White’s feature debut Starfish.

Aubrey is first seen at the funeral reception for her best and oldest friend Grace Ross (Christina Masterson), from whom Aubrey had recently become estranged. There is deep grief in the air, and Aubrey cannot face it. So she flees, without saying even a word to Grace’s boyfriend Edward (Eric Beecroft), and breaks into Grace’s now empty apartment. There, she feeds lettuce to the pet turtle Bellini, and starfish to the pet jellyfish, and holes up, desperate to conjure her friend’s ghostly traces and to reconcile herself to what has happened.

Before all this, though, in a prologue which is also a flashforward, Aubrey’s voice is heard on a CB radio, trying to reach out to anyone who is there, as a snowy woodland vista is shown with fiery explosions and some physics-defying phenomena. In other words, it is clear from the very outset that Aubrey is headed towards some sort of cosmic, cataclysmic event, as the psychology of her mourning will take on, or at least be reflected in, unnatural forms, changing her world(view) forever. So Starfish is a hybrid of intimate psychodrama and post-apocalyptic survival thriller, with either genre informing and amplifying the other. 

Aubrey wakes in the apartment on New Year’s morning to find the power out, the town’s populace mysteriously vanished (in fulfilment, as Aubrey explicitly states, of what used to be her ‘absolute favourite fantasy’), and strange Lovecraftian creatures now roaming the otherwise abandoned streets. Grace has left Aubrey a letter and a cassette tape, informing her that in their old haunts around town other tapes are hidden, and that, once brought together, the resulting mixtape – like the ones they both used to make for one another when they were much younger – ‘will save the world’. So, Starfish aligns itself with other films, like John DeBello’s Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978), Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996), and Yoshiro Nakamura’s Fish Story (2009), in which songs are the salvation of a word in crisis. Yet here, in reuniting Grace’s songs, Aubrey is also struggling to reintegrate her disparate recollections of her childhood friendship, in an attempt to save herself as much as the world, and to sort through her unresolved feelings about her relationship with Grace. 

“Are you escaping?”, Grace’s cousin Alice (Natalie Mitchell) asks Aubrey at the funeral reception near the film’s beginning. “Is this real?”, Aubrey will later ask – a question that answers itself given that Aubrey’s words are addressed to a dead person (who herself points out the paradox). Indeed, Starfish is an escapist work, with all its genre elements screaming out to be seen as allegory of a character’s interior anguish. After all, the the film constantly undermines and destabilises the very reality that it presents on screen. It is peppered with dreams and hallucinations and marked breaches of gravitational law. There are irrational shifts in location and monstrous avatars of the unconscious. One section morphs into a (beautiful) animated sequence. Another offers a meta moment of extreme reflexivity as Aubrey finds herself on Starfish‘s film set, observing with confusion the lights, the cameras, even the actress Gardner in conversation with director White.

Here Aubrey’s emotional breakdown and the end of the world run in parallel, with the demonic visitors being no less of the personal, ‘inner’ variety than they are transdimensional creatures outside the apartment, and with the disaster beyond the door mirroring her mental turmoil. Aubrey’s missions to recover Grace’s tone-holding tapes are also a trip down memory lane, while playing out like a physical enactment of the stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief. The wolf hat and wolf coat that Aubrey has taken from Grace’s home and now wears as she trudges alone through the snowy town marks the beast as part of Aubrey’s own makeup of mourning – a dressing-up costume that she wears to stave off the chill of death.

Starfish is dedicated to the memory of White’s late friend Sayako ‘Grace’ Robinson (who used to exchange mixtapes with him), and all White’s profits from the film are going to Cancer Research (the fictive Grace was also killed by cancer). So it seems clear that this is a deeply personal project (“based on a true story”, as text informs us at the beginning), allowing White, like Aubrey, to process feelings through darkly imaginative fiction. The result merges the alienating awe of Monsters (2010), the soundwave-borne societal collapse of The Signal (2007), the guilt-ridden personal demons of After (2012) and the end-of-days emotional armageddon of Melancholia (2011), into a strange, moody and ultimately profoundly moving subjectification of grief’s effects. All this is orchestrated to a killer playlist that opens the floodgates to release the painful, the harrowing and the repressed. It is a beautifully, achingly sad film where horror and sci-fi merely modulate those feelings which it is hard for us to confront directly.

Summary: A.T. White’s beautiful, sad film uses apocalyptic genre tropes as an expressive tool for the isolating, dissociative processes of grief. 

© Anton Bitel