If things play out like they should, Starfish will be to A.T. White and Virginia Gardner like Eraserhead was for David Lynch (if sadly not Jack Nance). I mean that less in terms of content but in shared credit. Both as a debut feature for White and a well-deserved star vehicle for Gardner (Marvel’s Runaways), who spends most of the film without a scene partner, Starfish excels in every way.
First and foremost a chronicle of unrestrained grief, Starfish begins with Gardner’s Aubrey attending the funeral of her friend, Grace (Christina Masterson). At the reception we see her staring at the back of a woman’s head. This is before we’ve seen any pictures of Grace, but they have the same hair color. There’s a buzzing noise, and Aubrey realizes there’s a fly stuck in her drink. A man (Tanroh Ishida) appears beside her and comments about how everyone’s smiling. Music permeates throughout the film – Aubrey works in radio and Grace left her mixtapes – but it’s also how White directs – in sequences that feel like playlists. Scenes transition with the terseness of a skip button on an iPod but, like a playlist that isn’t just thrown together songs that you like, all of the images have been strung together for a reason. They mean more together than apart.
That’s not how Aubrey wants to grieve, though, and when her exit is interrupted by one of Grace’s cousins (Natalie Mitchell), she relies on her car keys to give her a way out. People are something she needs to escape but some would say the bigger trap is where she goes– the diner where Grace lived and worked, and which Aubrey shuts herself up in.
Aubrey doesn’t want to smile at the reception. Her preference is to immerse herself in grief, and in Grace’s apartment everything has been turned into a reminder that she’s dead. It’s like how Aubrey leaves her handprints on the window in front of the diner and it’s no big deal, but Grace left some eggs in a frying pan and you can’t stop staring. Starfish doesn’t pretend this is the healthiest choice (Aubrey had to break into Grace’s place), but it is a relatable one, conveyed visually through contradictions in time.
Grace’s apartment hasn’t been touched since her death (there’s still an indent in her pillow) but time hasn’t frozen, and one of the smartest things the film does is to keep tabs on the outside world. While it would be easy for Aubrey to lose touch with what’s going on (and she is isolated), it’s not to the point of delusion. Car headlights pass by on the wall while she’s eating. A calendar shows the days crossed out until Christmas while the radio tells us it’s New Year’s Eve (it’s details like this that also let us know a little more about what happened to Grace, in a way that’s organic and unspoken). Audrey even calls her mom (Janis Ahern), so she’s not completely cut off, but by not facing reality, she’s also ensuring she faces her loss – not repressing but breaking down in order to build herself up.
The other thing is this spiral isn’t all about Grace. Sometimes films about grief get tunnel vision but at Grace’s funeral, Aubrey remembers meeting a guy at the beach and that memory crops up again and again. The timing points to a connection between him and Grace but that’s not what’s going on.
What is going on is this is a genre movie, so when the electricity goes out and monsters start showing up, Aubrey is convinced that the only way to stop them is if she finds Grace’s mixtapes. Are the monsters real? Personified grief or depression? Aubrey isn’t sure but, again, by acknowledging there are other people being hurt outside, it doesn’t feel entirely in Aubrey’s head.
Starfish never loses its emotional truth and while the film takes its time, and doesn’t stress clear answers, Gardner’s control of the screen and White’s direction (with cinematographer, Alberto Bañares, also making his feature debut) make this a film you understand innately, while much is left open to debate.
Starfish is currently touring in theaters and will available on VOD starting May 28th.