“Starfish” is a dreamy, atmospheric film that blends a young woman’s grief over the death of her best friend—and guilt over an unrelated infidelity—with a sudden apocalyptic event similar to the premise of the 2013 movie “Banshee Chapter,” which in turn borrows from H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond.” If that sounds like a lot to incorporate into one story, it is, and it doesn’t entirely work, but there are plenty of captivating visuals that will keep you hanging on until the ending.
The grieving portion of the story is drawn from director A.T. White’s personal experience, and that is the reason for the “Based on a true story” note at the start of the film. In fact, all of White’s profits from “Starfish” are being admirably donated towards cancer research. But that “true story” note is misleading, because it convinced me that the apocalyptic elements must be a dream or hallucination—in order to keep things true. They aren’t though, apparently, unless I completely misunderstood the ending, awash in Sigur Ros.
After Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) stays the night at her deceased friend Grace’s apartment—a surprisingly large place full of whimsical decorations, a walkie-talkie, pet jellyfish and a pet turtle—she wakes up to find the town outside covered in snow, most of the people gone and a monster that chases her back inside. With the help of a mysterious voice through the walkie-talkie, she learns that Grace and a few conspiracy theorists have discovered a signal that allows monstrous creatures to appear in our world. This is a big part of the story in Banshee Chapter, except that in the latter, those beings are trying to merge with human bodies (from Lovecraft). That detail is perhaps suggested too in “Starfish” by the glimpses we get of a man whose face has been hollowed out, but it’s never expanded on. Later on, it’s tied in with Aubrey’s infidelity and her inability to look it in the face—I think.
So Grace has left cassette tapes with parts of the signal broken up and hidden inside (mostly light indie) songs in secret places around the town, and Aubrey must brave the monsters outside to find them. It’s not totally clear why, but it’s the reason for lovely scenes of Aubrey listening to the tapes and experiencing supernatural activity: levitating, teleporting into strange locations, becoming an animated character, flashing back to her affair, etc.
My favorite moment in the film is when Aubrey sees a giant, long-snouted monster slowly lumbering past the buildings, its limbs sparkling with what could be electronics or magical energy. That scene was the most convincing that another world might be colliding unintentionally with ours, and what a wonder that could be. I wanted there to be more fantastical, scifi moments like that and less of the ubiquitously pretty Aubrey’s depressed loitering inside the apartment, which does make up most of the story. The glimpses of Grace’s ghost—in the bed next to her or holding her hand and whispering—are beautifully done too.
Over all, I think the ideas in “Starfish” would’ve been better served as two separate movies. It’s still a pleasure to experience them here, however, and the proceeds are certainly going to a good cause. I look forward to A.T. White’s next feature-length film!
Catch “Starfish” this Thursday, April 18th at The Landmark Theatre. It’ll hit VOD May 28th.