After the death of her dearest friend, Grace, Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) has found herself back in the Colorado mountains, in a space that she remembers on a cellular level but that simply doesn’t feel like home anymore. And after a post-funeral fraught night of sleep, she awakens to a near-deserted world, where everything around her bears the signs of an invasion by unspeakable horrors from some unseen place. Intermittent radio transmissions help to keep hope alive, but it’s in reconstructing the path her late friend left for her (via a mixtape-based scavenger hunt of the soul) that Aubrey may find a way to set the balance of the universe right.
This isn’t your typical horror movie. It’s not even your typical horror-movie-as-extended-grief-metaphor (à la The Babadook), though it would certainly succeed under those terms. This is a movie where the strength of women’s friendships is such to break down the boundaries of time and space. This is also a movie where heterosexual entanglements are either obstacles or problems to be solved, so I’m already inclined to love it. But it does far more.
Gardner is a magnet for empathy, much like she was in last year’s Halloween reboot (she played Vicky, the babysitter nobody wanted to see get killed). She’s in nearly every scene of the film and cements herself as one of the greatest actresses working in genre cinema today.
The way we relate to our friends’ pets isn’t something that most films will delve into, and here we see Aubrey dealing with a strong-willed, just this side of petulant turtle named Bellini (which is either named for the drink or for Kids In The Hall co-writer Paul Bellini, and I’m fine with either or both of those explanations) and a pair of unnamed jellyfish. The turtle has personality, and actually delivers an impressive performance for such a tiny reptile. The jellyfish are so alien to our frame of reference that they simply exist, indicative of the vast gulf between all kinds of organisms.
As in all cinema, a good monster can make up for many sins. This film has a great one. Several, in fact. Ranging from man-sized ravening maws with an array of pseudopodia to giant, dinosaur-sized polypedes. They serve dual purposes as reminders of the constant threat Aubrey is under as well as how far off the axis of normality the world has shifted.
Haunting, sad, and uplifting, Starfish is a creative and mind-bending exploration of love, grief, and friendship from writer/director A.T. White (of the band Ghostlight and the arts collective We Are Tessellate). It also makes for a great double feature with Other People, the 2016 feature debut from Chris Kelly, co-creator of The Other Two (a/k/a the best new show of 2019). Though be warned that you’re in for three hours and change of a heavy journey if you decide to take that double feature journey. It’s certainly worth it.
Starfish is in the midst of a limited theatrical release right now thanks to the lovable freaks at Yellow Veil Pictures, and will be available through most VoD services this month via The Orchard, who also put out the Norwegian lesbian SciFi epic Thelma two years back. Every cent the film makes for the writer/director is being given to cancer research.