STARFISH * * * 1 / 2
Starring Virginia Gardner, Christina Masterson, Eric Beecroft, Natalie Mitchell, Shannon Hollander. Written and directed by A.T. White.
For about a half-hour or so, writer-director A.T. White’s Starfish is a straightforward, delicately observed depiction of grief, with twentysomething Aubrey (played by the excellent Virginia Gardner) returning to the sleepy ski town where she was raised for the funeral of her best friend, Grace. After the service Aubrey hides away in the bathroom and sneaks out for cigarettes, unable to make small-talk with friends and relatives while gripped by pangs of guilt only semi-explained in elliptical flashbacks.
Eventually she bolts and breaks into her dead friend’s apartment, trying on Grace’s clothes and sleeping in her bed. The camera lingers for a long time on all the tchotchkes and memorabilia that fill this empty home, carefully considered in a way that hammers home the hollowness you feel when somebody’s gone. Gardner –who the camera simply adores—takes all of this in mournfully, movingly, until she finally falls asleep. Then come the monsters.
Aubrey awakens to what appears to have been an overnight apocalypse, with gigantic Lovecraftian beasts tearing apart her town. There are panicked instructions from a two-way radio, as it seems Grace was involved with some sort of science project that may have opened up a portal to another dimension that accidentally ended everything. Aubrey could help. Grace left a cassette with a label explaining: “THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD.” But Aubrey puts it away and curls up on the couch with her dead friend’s pet turtle. She doesn’t feel like saving the world today.
Starfish has all the trappings of a conventional sci-fi horror film, and could probably have been a decent version of one of those Cloverfield things if White had wanted to bother. But it’s much more interesting than that, a movie taking place inside the numbed fog of depression that externalizes its metaphors with genre tropes. Aubrey is eventually sent on a scavenger hunt of sorts, traveling to beloved childhood spots collecting cassette tapes that when played together might reverse the phenomenon that brought these creatures to our world.
The sci-fi story doesn’t quite hang together, nor do I think it’s really meant to. White is more interested in mood and texture, with the alien apocalypse standing in for that feeling of waking up one morning to realize that nothing in your life will never be the same. The ravaged, ruined town isn’t just a representation of Aubrey’s inner world, but also when she returns to destroyed favorite haunts it’s like how the places you used to go feel so empty when your friend’s not there anymore.
The music Grace has left behind on these tapes is said to contain signals that open different doors, the way certain songs take you back to different places in your memory. The tunes prompt all sorts of surreal interludes, including a trippy animated sequence and a fourth-wall breaking bit that finds Aubrey on the set observing White and Gardner shooting the movie we’ve been watching. Not all of these ideas are great, but there are so damn many of them you’ll never have any idea where Starfish is headed next.
This is pretty much a one-woman-show for Virginia Gardner, who made a brief but memorable impression as the cool babysitter you really didn’t want to die in last year’s unexpectedly terrific Halloween sequel. She’s a wonderfully empathetic presence here, having to hold large chunks of screen time alone with her thoughts, talking once in awhile to that pet turtle. Gardner conveys great depths of feeling in a role that quite easily could have come off as a mope.
Starfish is like the indie rocker cousin to Melancholia or Annihilation, moving with the same sort of dreamy sadness. I’m not sure White sticks the landing but I’m also not sure it matters. I loved the cluttered, thrift-shop aesthetic and affinity for analog technology. There’s also something genuinely beguiling about the idea of a mixtape that can save the world – the notion that playing certain songs in the right order can reverse everything that’s awful or open up the doors to a new universe.
Or maybe I just really miss making those things.