[Review] Starfish; Or, Grace and Aubrey's Apocalyptic Playlist
Have you ever lost someone that, and I mean this literally, means the world to you? Someone whose disappearance, whether through death, relocation or through a terrible breakup, leaves a tremendous void in your heart? If you have, then you know the void I’m talking about. The empty feeling. The thought that nothing will ever get better. That it (again, quite literally) is the end of the world.
Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) knows this feeling and is forced to deal with her pain while the world is seemingly ending around her in writer/director A.T. White’s debut feature film Starfish. Aubrey was best friends with Grace (Christina Masterson) and is now deep in mourning of her friend’s passing. As Starfish opens, Aubrey is at Grace’s funeral; but she’s uncomfortable around all the people who try to give her reassuring smiles (always smiling!) and try to talk around the kinds of tricky subjects people at funerals try to talk around.
So she ducks out and breaks into Grace’s apartment, where she can wallow in her grief in solitude, surrounded by Grace’s belongings and her poor pets, a couple of jellyfish that she feeds starfish to and a cute, but bitey turtle named Bellini. As she rummages through Grace’s stuff, gently reminiscing about her friend, she discovers a mixtape labeled with the number seven and a statement: “This mixtape will save the world.”
She plays it and then falls asleep and is filled with uneasy dreams of a man named Edward, whose face is literally missing, as if bashed in…but the blood and viscera is slowly floating towards the ceiling. When she awakens, it’s snowy and freezing. The TV doesn’t work. The power is out. The phone’s dead. The streets are empty; deserted. As she wanders the town looking for someone, we see the trappings of an apocalyptic nightmare. Blood splashed on windows and trails of it staining the snowy ground. Cars litter the abandoned streets, destroyed or simply left. Smoke’s rising in the distance.
And then she sees it. A monstrous creature that chases her back to Grace’s apartment. Her only lifeline is a walkie-talkie, where she can talk to a mysterious male voice that tells her how to keep the monsters at bay. He tells her about the mixtapes and about how Grace was part of a group exploring some alien signal. About how Grace left behind seven mixtapes for Aubrey to find and that, by doing so, she can fix everything. And so, clad in a giant wolf skin (complete with a wolf head), Aubrey and her trusted turtle pal finally decide to find the tapes and maybe avert the end of the world.
Except that isn’t really what Starfish is about. The narrative teeters on nonsensical, at least on first viewing, but that isn’t a knock on it, though some people will see it as one. If you were to ask me what the story was, beyond what I wrote above, I wouldn’t be able to fully explain it. It’s told through a variety of styles, both narrative and visual. For example, at one point, Aubrey falls into an anime-inspired animated segment, set to indie rock, that could have been pulled for its own music video. I’m sure some will call the movie twee. It is definitely artsy.
The majority of the actual story is told through fragments nonlinear plotting. The main thrust of the narrative—that of Aubrey looking for the mixtapes, while evading monsters some would call Lovecraftian—is set in the present and is all about going from point A to point B, etc. But the emotional heart of the story lies in flashbacks and dream sequences that truly feel dreamlike. We see snippets of events that happened prior to Grace’s death, but they feel ephemeral in the way that actual dreams are.
The past obviously weighs on Aubrey and we see the nightmarish results of the guilt she harbors in hazy dreams and startling imagery. At night, her dreams invade reality to the point we’re not sure if Aubrey really is dreaming or if she’s being attacked by something supernatural.
“Maybe I’m dead,” she says at one point.
It can feel painfully slow, at times as Aubrey is paralyzed by depression. She wants to curl up and die. To maybe be punished for some unknown crime. Here actress Virginia Gardner really sells her character’s feelings. The entire movie is pretty much carried on her shoulders. For most of the movie, the only thing she has to act against is her turtle companion. And then Starfish will goose you with jump scares, as CG monsters pop up to remind Aubrey (and us) that there’s still danger. But that’s kind of the point, I think. Starfish bravely allows Aubrey to wallow in her grief. It’s probably one of the most honest, if metaphorical, examinations of depression and grief that I have experienced in film. And that depression, that void, can be boring and monotonous. It can be terrifying.
Aubrey is seemingly all alone. It’s a crushing feeling. It’s what depression feels like. Voices crackling on the other end of the phone; heard but not seen. And as you push further into that depression and surround yourself in it, the further detached you get from the rest of the world. Until it’s literally just you, huddled under your blanket, trying to hide from the monsters of your own creation. It’s cold. And dark. And empty. And you fight the paradox of wanting to desperately be with someone…while simultaneously wanting to be far, far away from everyone. “Just stay here and never leave,” Aubrey begs of a potentially imagined person.
But she has to leave. She has to continue on her with life; her journey.
Grace wants her to move on. To be happy. And the mixtapes become a metaphor for trying to find that will to continue. One step at a time. A scavenger hunt of the soul, if I may risk a treacly comparison. Is the apocalypse real or imagined? Does it even matter? Because it’s real to Aubrey. And it’s real to everyone who has gone through the type of grief she’s going through; the kind that you have to eventually push through or let it consume you.
I imagine this movie will be pretentious for some. It’s deliberately paced and some people won’t be comfortable enough to sit through such sluggish sadness. Won’t be patient enough to sift through the clues it strings along or the fragmented story that doesn’t answer everything. Truthfully, I’m not sure I completely understood the story. But I also don’t think that matters. It’s emblematic of depression: messy, confusing, slow and unconnected.