Maybe I’m dead.
The logline deals in grief—the loss of a best friend. It describes Aubrey (Virginia Gardner), a woman lost in thought, pain, and sorrow after the death of Grace (Christina Masterson). She wasn’t there for her in her time of need and that regret is eating away her resolve and perhaps even her sanity once she’s awoken from a nightmare to find herself in the middle of a wintery wasteland. The dream wasn’t of Grace, however, but an unknown man (Eric Beecroft) crying inconsolably despite having no face to cover the gorily hollowed skull atop his shoulders. It’s one of many disorienting images confronting us as she leaves her deceased friend’s apartment to venture into a veritable ghost town as malicious creatures with razor-sharp teeth hunt through snow.
All writer/director/composer A.T. White provides at the start of his feature debut Starfish is Aubrey’s fear and a disembodied voice emanating from a walkie-talkie to guide her forward. Supposedly this savior was Grace’s colleague and the apocalyptic danger outside a product of a signal they discovered being sent from some unknown source. Aubrey finds a package left behind for her containing a mixtape with Grace’s words explaining the phenomenon and her hope to solve the chaos once she got better. That didn’t happen, though, and now her friend is no longer here. So what’s the point of living without her? If the person she loved most in this world was gone, why not embrace oblivion? Instead of helping Grace at the end, Aubrey’s inaction let this horror in.
The internal mythology of Grace’s mission concerns seven signals on seven mixtapes hidden inside places she and Aubrey used to go. These tones are therefore laid underneath the film’s soundtrack, each tape ultimately played as a way to keep the monsters at bay. It’s thought that these sounds opened the doorways for the creatures (big and small) to enter our dimension and thus also contain the answer to sending them away. That’s why hearing each makes them retreat as though the noise were a harbinger of their return home. Unfortunately for Aubrey, the signals haven’t lost their potency to rip the fabric of reality when played individually. So while the monsters run away, she’s transported through memory, anime (courtesy of Tezuka Productions), and the fourth wall.
It’s a wild adventure with a pet turtle and old technology—details that can’t help but render the whole as a fantastical parable of sorts well beyond the point of being taken at face value. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Aubrey uses a walkie-talkie like a cellphone that doesn’t demand a button to be pressed in order to transmit your voice. And because we get these types of anachronistic stand-ins throughout, it’s no wonder that her dream-states take her places even further away from the spectrum of our world. We’re talking layers upon layers of metaphorical construction until the snowy outdoors become a sort of Silent Hill with the tapes providing the siren that opens up the hell Aubrey has been so desperate to avoid confronting.
White handles this shifting reality nicely with creature designs that never betray their human-like forms. And when Grace finally arrives in a hallucinatory moment of love’s pain, other details about Aubrey’s struggle rise to the surface. The man from that nightmare earns more importance as a point of guilt than her best friend ever does and the auditory cues become more roadmap through the days of her past soon to be revealed via wordless flashbacks than hope for the future. It’s not long before we realize the isolation is all in her mind, the looming apocalypse a specter of doom only she and that voice can understand. Mourning isn’t reserved solely for others after all. Sometimes our dearly departed friends are pieces of ourselves we must let go.
That’s the beauty of films like this: it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Maybe we’re watching a reality where Aubrey is caught in an impossible position to accept her faults before the world crumbles. Or maybe she’s the starfish of the title cutting off a part of who she was and whom she loved so a new identity and wholeness of feeling can regenerate where that limb once belonged. Eventually we all find ourselves at the control station with our finger on the button, told how pressing it will save humanity without knowing if it’s actually true. We take those we love at their word only to sometimes discover their path was a suicide mission for our salvation. Who’s to say Grace isn’t working for darkness?
Whether you take the plunge and decipher the clues or not, Starfish provides a visually memorable surrealist world flickering between dimensions for genre fans to enjoy. The aural soundscape of score, effects, and soundtrack assist in enveloping us in the insanity to come like the warm bear head fur Aubrey wears to pretend her every move isn’t made in contradiction to the fear shaking her to her core. These are the surface choices that make the film a gorgeous cinematic snack many will be satisfied to consume. I do hope audiences look beneath them, though, to see the meaty meal asking us to confront our longing for a past mired in nostalgia that we must forget in order to forgive ourselves enough for happiness to become possible again.
courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures