When her dear friend Grace dies Aubrey breaks into her apartment searching for solace. Stuck in a distressing loop of paralyzing grief and interdimensional visions, she must also face a snowbound apocalypse populated by terrifying creatures. Only a treasure trail of mixtapes offers any hope of salvation but will music be enough to save the world?
Of all art forms, cinema is often the medium that best serves as both a conduit for the exploration of intensely personal themes and as a public battleground for exorcising inner demons. One of the most pervasive and intransigent viewings imaginable in the shape of Martyrs (2008) was birthed out of its directors deep depressional mental state at the time. Elem Klimov’s emotional power sander Come and See (1985) was such a potent intestinal outpouring that the highly talented director never shot another frame. A decision very nearly replicated by Spielberg after the psychological draining of his unbearably personal Schindler’s List.
However, it is Bergman’s enduring classic Persona, written in the dark headspace of the director’s recovery from pneumonia, that is the closest cousin to Starfish in this regard. It shares the same core obsession of confronting debilitating mental confusions through art and further still the same leanings towards metaphor as the only creative driving force that can fully express the raw pain of loss.
Director A.T. White starts proceedings by declaring the picture to be a true story. This is, of course, an impossibility but he is instead referring to the fact that it is a representation of the psychological fallout he endured after losing his best friend to cancer.
How any given individual will process the film and what conclusions they will draw is impossible to predict in any mere review due to the nature of this overtly invasive beast. Guilt, self-destructive coping mechanisms and forced and enforced solitude are all up for grabs in this cinematic empathy parade. That being said, the overriding presence of the concept of grief-fueled detachment is undeniably powerful. It is what defines the emotional rationale of Starfish and what binds it creatively.
Full of punky rug pulls and quirky cult trimmings Starfish is surprisingly playful for a movie comprised of such dark matter. An unlikely animal sidekick, iconic headgear, unforeseen careening into mixed media and a brain-freezing smack into the fourth wall are just some of the left field lurches that lie in wait.
The soundtrack is an adroit balancing act between a suitably dramatic score and melancholic indie tracks that manage to steer the plot and puncture the narrative aloofness allowing the delicate subject matter to breathe. Instead of using music as a ” look how cool I am” calling card, White has utilised it to strip layers of pretention away from his story prioritising poignancy and pathos over shallow kudos for kicks.
If music is the lifeblood of Starfish then actress Virginia Gardner is the brittle heart that pumps it round. The role of Aubrey is a demanding one because the camera so rarely drifts away from her own introspection. We watch her life unravel, look out for a super smart visual motif for this early on in the film using a straw, solely from her perspective with very little outside input at all. We are voyeurs to her bathroom breaks, masturbation and ultimately her quest for closure. Gardner does superb work in building audience affinity by eschewing tiresome neediness and projecting a deeply humanised snapshot of likeability. She has all the correct creative and aesthetic weaponry for her star to rise.
It is fair to say that Starfish is packed to the gills with hefty themes and barbed with nihilism but the spritely pace, stimulating camerawork and excellent effects work prevent any feelings of drudgery. The monsters will be inevitably, and lazily, compared to A Quiet Place, yet they are never the focus of the film and snuggle contentedly into the extended metaphor ethic of the whole package. There are instances of well-rendered disturbing imagery and carefully rationed but highly competent CGI that suggests a project of this meager budget has called in favours to punch above its weight.
This open letter to sorrow and regret is a true audience divider. Some will find the relentless rummaging of the director’s emotional baggage a debilitating slog. Others will be mesmerised by his artful metaphor for bereavement and glimpse a uniquely soothing catharsis.
How much you connect with the film will be dependent on your empathy levels at the time and even more importantly how recently you have suffered a heavy loss of your own. That is a rare credit for such a small movie to be so organically touching. The emotional literacy of Starfish should not be underestimated. If you are grieving at the time of viewing it will hit you like a bullet train.
As a straight-up genre piece Starfish is too convoluted, maverick and willfully existential to fully succeed. However, as a reflective surface held up to the internal confusions of guilt, loss and mourning it is a tender, savagely intimate and bravely candid masterwork.
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Apocalypse, Horror, Survival Drama | USA, 2018 | NR | 99mins | VOD/digital in the US & UK – May 28th | The Orchard | Dir. A.T. White| Cast.Virginia Gardner, Christina Masterson, Eric Beecroft