Shut-In Cinema: Starfish

Grief is a thing we deal with often these days. During this quarantine I’ve tried thus far to highlight fun things, distractions and silliness that I think deserves a second look or entertainment I deem forgotten. Tonight I’d prefer not to do that. Tonight I want to confront something more direct. People will look at this and think I’m calling the Coronavirus outbreak an apocalypse. I’m not, even though I’m taking it seriously. Some are going to see this and wonder if I’m a sad sack. Sure, sometimes. This, however, is more about dealing with grief and sorrow. There have been lives lost and there are more to come. We need to think it over and consider how to move forward.

We need to talk about the 2018 film Starfish.

Directed by A.T. White, Starfish tells the story of Aubrey Parker (Virginia Gardner) as she spends time in the apartment of her dead best friend. After breaking into the apartment, she wakes up the next morning to a snowed-out apocalypse after an event called “The Signal.” She finds a mixtape in the apartment, conveniently labelled “THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD,” and sets out to do just that. It’s a mixture of gorgeous visuals, bizarre story decisions, the indie-est soundtrack that ever did indie, and a really methodical exploration of grief. It includes everything from creature horror to an animation sequence, even finding time for such an off-the-wall fourth wall break that my jaw dropped, and yet it all feels like something we’ve all felt before.

I watched this by myself in the wee hours of the morning one night when I couldn’t sleep. It was sometime in early 2019, and the light snowfall outside matched the mood perfectly. The film is led by an absolutely stunning performance from Gardner, mostly quiet and what might at first seem disconnected, that can convey what most people feel about deep-seated grief. There’s a ton of great movement (and lack thereof when necessary) and eye work, something that pairs incredibly well with the minimal use of dialogue. Each moment is either wracked with tension or begging you to explore the confusing ocean that is true depression, the gap we all feel when someone is pulled out of our lives unexpectedly and we struggle to understand why and/or how.

This is technically a horror film, mostly slipped into that genre for having moments of body horror in the creature design, and it earns its stripes. I felt genuine dread in the moments of quiet terror outside the apartment, between buildings in the snow, and hiding from what lurked just outside the field of vision until it wasn’t lurking anymore. The word “Lovecraftian” is thrown around quite a bit and this film is no exception. What it is instead is more of a cosmic dread, that lurking feeling that we’re being judged or hunted, that comes in this specific kind of depressed state. Aubrey is visibly someone that had issues with her best friend. I think that whole thing takes a toll and contributes to the haunted and broken emotions she’s feeling throughout, manifested in the creatures.

If I could launch one complaint at this film it would have been to ditch any semblance of dialogue altogether. Very few films could pull off being completely without that specific cinematic tool but…A.T. White has put together a film that honestly begs for it. I truly believe this would have been better without it, but as a whole it succeeds anyway. This is a gorgeous film, a quietly emotional journey that is one many have gone unaware of. Hell, it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article and I’m shocked it has an IMDB page. Do yourself a favor and partake in a quiet night of contemplation and self-reflection. We all need it here and there during this, and it’s good to take stock now and then.

Starfish is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu.

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