It’s not often I consider myself “lucky” to have been able to consume a work of art, be it a song or a painting, a film or a TV show. After all, most of the art that has changed my life hasn’t exactly been some kind of secret gem; Dawn Of The Dead is hailed by many as the greatest zombie film of all time, and who among us wouldn’t consider Purple Rain a game changer? My point is, I don’t think I came close to missing the boat on a lot of the stuff that has had an impact on me because a lot of it was widely available and critically acclaimed. Very rarely do I see a film that I think, “wow, I’m actually fortunate to have been in this place at this time to see this.” I can now add A.T. White’s Starfish to the list of “I didn’t see that coming but thank God it did” films in my life.
All cards on the table: if you’re the type of person who goes into a film wanting every loose thread wrapped up, and every tiny thing explained to you, and every little detail to have some kind of literal meaning, you won’t like this film. Don’t expect an interpretation to be spoon-fed to you. This is a film that is the textbook definition of “here is some art, take from it what you will.” It is not an artist’s job to hold your hand and tell you what to think or what to take away from their art; rather, it is our job as consumers to glean something from that art and construct a meaning. Starfish is a film that makes us work for that. It’s not quite a Jackson Pollack painting committed to film, nor is it the Mona Lisa. The whole film has an air of uncertainty around it, never quite admitting what is meant to be taken literally and what is meant to be symbolic and never admitting what is actually happening or what is simply occurring in the character’s head. But trust me: it works. This film is one of the most achingly beautiful depictions of grief and loss I have ever seen committed to film, and next to Zulawski’s Possession succeeds the most at capturing the surreal and dreamlike horror of those feelings through equally bizarre imagery.
Starfish is the story of Aubrey Parker (portrayed by the extremely talented Virginia Gardner), who we meet at the funeral for her best friend Grace. Not that funerals are ever an easy time for anyone, but Aubrey is very clearly hit harder than most by the death of her friend. We learn from comments by fellow mourners that Aubrey clearly occupied a very special place in Grace’s life, with one remarking that it was rare for a day to go by when Grace didn’t mention Aubrey. After the funeral, instead of returning home, Aubrey breaks into Grace’s apartment, and it is in this setting we see the outline of the girls’ friendship; Grace’s walls are lined with memorabilia outlining their past. Aubrey spends the night in the apartment, and awakens the next day to find out that the world she knew is effectively over. Not just symbolically: Aubrey’s town has become a wintery wasteland where monsters roam the streets and nothing is what it seems. The rest of the film follows Aubrey as she herself tries to follow Grace’s postmortem instructions via strategically placed mix tapes to right the wrong that has been unleashed on the world, and along the way we find out the tragic backstory of how Aubrey got here and why Grace is no longer with us. Stark winter landscapes are intermingled with touching moments between Gardner and her new best friend (Bertelli the tortoise), and nightmarish scenes where she struggles through this new hellish reality to find some kind of meaning in the nightmare that is now every day life.
Equal parts tender and despairing, Starfish is a deft examination of the process of grief in which writer/director White plunges us headlong into the bittersweet waters of recovery and acceptance and forces us to drink deep, in the process showing us something lush and dreamlike. He makes us realize that the reason we’re relating to this story of a girl fighting Lovecraftian monsters in a winter hellscape is that every single person who’s ever dealt with loss and grief and guilt has been in Aubrey’s shoes. Because, sure, inter-dimensional and/or extraterrestrial monsters are scary; we all know that. But for White’s film, what’s truly and profoundly terrifying is the guilt one feels from hurting someone else and the burden of carrying that guilt forward in life, especially when there are external consequences, something just about everyone can relate to. Aubrey carries this burden around for the entire film, and ultimately it is the biggest threat to her.
One thing that is very clear about this film is how deeply personal it is. We often see works of art described as “personal.” As in, “such and such is so and so’s most personal film.” Which is a weird, almost non-descriptor because of course it’s personal: all art is personal. However, very rarely have I seen a film that is actually as personal as Starfish. It’s a bit of a trope for an artist to be suffering and for them to lay bare their soul for the world to see, but truly, that is exactly what White does in this film. He doesn’t merely bare his soul; for much of the film you see that soul flayed wide-open, Hellraiser-style. You can feel that he’s working through some very deep pain by making this film, and that it’s a passion project in the truest sense of the word. At times, I was reminded of why James O’Barr wrote The Crow. Much of the dialogue reads like very real conversations he has actually had, and that further enhances the feeling of it drawing from some real trauma. It is a film about catharsis, and a very honest one at that. It paints no promises of relief, or a happy ending of any kind, but rather states starkly that you might not be okay in the end anyway, and it could all be for nothing, but you will definitely not be okay if you allow guilt and regret to consume you.
Debut full-lengths can be shaky and uncertain affairs, but Starfish never feels uncertain or half-hearted. Stylistically and narratively vague for sure, but even that is clearly a very distinct and very sure aesthetic choice. It knows exactly what it wants to be even if it’s several different things at once. White is adept at picking the best of several genres to tell the story that needs to be told and paint his picture of hope and despair, and wields those aspects like a surgeon. Aspects of sci-fi are peppered throughout, but not enough to bore or alienate us. Despite not being outwardly scary, the film establishes early on enough of a sense of dread that any serene or calm sequences are tinged with frightful anticipation. There’s a bit of quirky millennium nu-romance film in there to cut through the despair and fear, with the film being silly and sweet and sentimental at times but never quite saccharine. And there’s a sequence towards the middle that really drives home the sense of “I don’t know what I’m watching but it’s great at whatever it is.”
On a final technical note, Virginia Gardner shoulders the load of carrying this film expertly, never once letting us fall out of the fantasy that we are truly seeing a woman struggling for answers in a world gone mad. She brings a sense of tired determination to the role, and by the end of the film you truly begin to feel her desperation and desire to understand it all. Which is impressive, because not only is she the protagonist of the film, she is quite literally the only actual character, aside from Bertelli; everyone else is either a dream/hallucination. It takes a certain fortitude in an actor to really be able to carry a film, especially one as unorthodox as Starfish, but Gardner is absolutely phenomenal in doing so.
Life, as they say, is pain. In the world Starfish paints for us, the default setting is something mundane and often unpleasant, with happiness being a deviation from the norm. What Starfish dares to propose, however, is that often that unpleasantness is not necessarily of our own choosing but more from our inability to simply let go of what we cannot change and move forward. And sometimes that’s not easy. Most of the time it isn’t. Moving on is painful, ugly, rarely simple, and it’s not always guaranteed that things will at some point return to normal. It might get better, or it might not, but if you stay here and do nothing it will not get better. The chains we forge from our guilt and our regret will bind us to something we cannot change and we will drown if we don’t cast those chains off and jettison the dead weight that is our past. At its core, Starfish is this stark and simple message wrapped up in a sweetly melancholic story that succeeds absolutely in what it sets out to do.