Starfish is emotionally moving sci-fi horror
The film is getting a VOD release in May, but this is your chance to see this Fantastic Fest 2018 film way before that! Not only early, but on a big screen, and with director AI White giving a Q&A afterward!
The screening is:
"Hello. My name is Aubrey Parker. I broke into my dead friend's apartment. Who the fuck are you?"
Certainly my editor will have my head for beginning a review this way, but I have no idea how to describe this to you (Nah, it’s all good, just keep going -Ed.). Here's my best, most brief attempt: Starfish is a quietly psychedelic investigation of grief, guilt, and where the two intersect and compound one another. And boy did it devastate me on a spiritual level. If that sounds a bit exasperated, it's only because I went into this movie with very little sense of it. I hadn't seen any trailers; only a few vague tweets about this small, Lovecraftian horror movie. So the emotional wallop that this movie gave me in its finale is still resonating with me 12 hours later as I sit here trying to write about it. [non-editor's self-note: It's taken me nearly a week to write this, so now I'm actually hundreds of hours out, and I'm still shook.]
As a sort of basic, boilerplate description, Starfish is about Aubrey (Virginia Gardner, doing great, complex work here) and her struggle to deal with the death of her best friend, Grace (Christina Masterson), while also trying to prevent the end of the world. To say much more than that would be a disservice to the discovery process that is watching this movie, but rest assured its unique blend of science-fiction, horror, and character drama packs quite the punch and, at least for me, has a sort of cumulative emotional effect.
This is a very strange movie, especially in its plot construction. It moves along at an odd pace, taking advantage of its dreamlike nature to tie some scenes and ideas together that initially feel a little loose. This is never a frustrating experience, though it may occasionally make one feel lost in the midst of confusing emotions and attempted indifference to them. This ends up being one of the many ways the film becomes a relatable experience, despite featuring many fantastical elements and a hodgepodge of nostalgic technology. I kept reflecting on how I felt in my early 20's, when the world seemed both cripplingly small and terrifyingly enormous at the same time. It's kind of remarkable to find yourself in an emotional time machine like that, though I can't say I'm necessarily grateful for that experience as much as I am in awe of this movie's ability to provide it.
The odd narrative structure aside, the rest of what's strange about this movie was right up my alley. The psychedelia I referenced earlier is carried out in tiny moments that aren't called out to; you either notice them or you don't, such as the red stripe on a drinking straw magically lifting off of the straw into the air. These build towards greater and grander moments of hallucinatory wonder, but those are best left experienced rather than explained. What I would like to say about this as a storytelling device is that it works perfectly in illustrating the experience of grief and the varied reactions one might have to it. As we watch Aubrey come to terms with the new world she finds herself in, we are as desperate for stability as she is. We need to know what's going on, and what things mean, in order to move forward. And yet, the movie keeps moving forward whether we fully understand what's happening to Aubrey or not. The metaphor, as difficult as it may be, is clear.
Another significant element of this movie is its music. There are a variety of needle drops that I wish I could spoil for you, except that I can't find a track list anywhere and my screener didn't have any credits. I'm certain I heard many bands from my college years, including Why?, the Cincinnati based indie/hip hop group, which contributed to the odd nostalgia trip that this movie took me on. I say odd because I'm convinced that's part of the intention of these musical choices, despite the fact that you'd have to be precisely my age (32) to feel that nostalgia for them. That said, thankfully I cannot really spoil any of these for you, as the soundtrack truly is part of the plot in an almost meta-textual sense. This isn't like Edgar Wright or James Gunn's use of music, where the song choices imply something about the characters or scenes they're used in tandem with - here, the usefulness of the songs to the characters and plot are quite literal, and it's a really strong choice that I'm surprised I haven't really seen before.
There is also additional score by writer/director A.T. White that is absolutely phenomenal. I was sucked into this movie immediately, even in its initial frames which are pure black. The music really carries this along and pulls some of the disparate pieces together, helping the dream-logic make some sort of sense when it's at its most psychedelic. And I suspect this is what leads to that cumulative emotional effect that I referred to earlier. While this is a genuinely small movie, it feels enormous in its execution. While this is a deeply personal movie, it is universal in its intent. The combination of sights and sounds that are evoked here cut straight through the bullshit to the core of what grief actually feels like. We must go through it, and do the work. We have to relive both our joy and our pain, both our triumphs and our regrets, no matter how daunting a task that seems.
I feel like this review might be operating on a similar dream-logic to the movie, but hopefully that only helps sell what a truly remarkable experience this is. As difficult as I found it at times, I wouldn't trade the impact this has for a more refined experience. It's as messy and strange as grief itself, and that's quite the accomplishment. An accomplishment you can see on the big screen, thanks to the good folks at Cinepunx.
On March 18th, at 7pm, at the historic Rotunda in Philadelphia, Cinepunx is teaming up with Yellow Veil Pictures to present the Philadelphia premiere of this truly unique and exciting movie, accompanied by a Q&A with writer/director A.T. White. I am greatly looking forward to seeing this on the big screen, and I'll hope you'll join me in that experience! Get your tickets here, today.