Friday, June 7, 2019

Movie Review: Starfish

Starfish **** / *****
Directed by: Al White.
Written by: Al White.
Starring: Virginia Gardner (Aubrey), Christina Masterson (Grace), Eric Beecroft (Edward), Natalie Mitchell (Alice), Shannon Hollander (Charlotte), Elias Brett (Somerset), Tanroh Ishida (Okami), Matthew Thomas Brown (Billy), Regina Saldivar (Sam), Andreas Wigand (Andrew), Jenna Marie Johnson (Layla), Haruka Abe (Creature mocap), Janis Ahern (Mrs. Parker), Roberto Davide (Chris), Matthew Ramos (Mark), Madison Stratford (Gwen).
I miss the days when an indie film like Al White’s Starfish would have sparked a conversation among movie lovers online, and elsewhere. This is a film that wants to be something like Donnie Darko or Upstream Color, and yet the film basically played a few festivals, and then was dumped to VOD services, where it has mostly been ignored. No, it’s not as good as either Donnie Darko or Upstream Color – but it’s kind of amazing that a debut director set out to make something both this ambitious, and yet so intensely personal. I wish more people would see Starfish – if only because I want more good writing about it.
The film stars Virginia Gardner as Aubrey – a twentysomething, former radio DJ who returns to the small town she once lived to attend the funeral of Grace – her best friend. Not wanting to be around anyone, she ends up breaking into her friend’s apartment, to spend a long night drinking, listening to music and being alone. And then, when she wakes up, she slowly realizes that sometime in the night, the end of the world as we know it happened. Some sort of creatures from another dimension have come through a portal, and they are wiping out almost everyone. Aubrey is told – by a seemingly friendly voice on a walkie talkie – that Grace knew this was going to happen. It all has to do with a strange signal – one that Grace has pieced together, and hidden on 7 cassettes tapes, under music, and hidden around town in places that meant something to her and Aubrey. It’s up to Aubrey to find them, and bring them together – to perhaps stop all of this.
Starfish certainly uses sci-fi and horror elements through, including some pretty great special effects done on a low-budget – the creatures themselves are not seen in full detail very often – mostly, they are in the background or in blurs. We do get some close-ups late in the film – and a view of some massive creatures that will probably bring to mind something like Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptation The Mist. The film also has an anime chase sequence – and even if it doesn’t fit in as neatly as something similar did in Kill Bill Volume 1 – it certainly shows White’s ambitions to make something visually inventive is there.
But this is mainly a story of Aubrey, going through the process of grieving for her friend. There is sorrow there to be sure, but also guilt and shame, desire, lust and love. We don’t really go through those five well known stages in grief in a linear fashion, but it’s all jumbled up all at once. Starfish, which White wrote while grieving the death of his own friend, knows this intimately. It’s a wise film about that process.
Not everything Starfish does entirely works – there is a very meta sequence late in the film that is unnecessary –which I think all such sequences outside of Bergman’s Persona are usually useless. Your mileage may also vary depending on your thoughts on twee indie music – which populate the soundtrack more than in any other film since Garden State (although the music here is better – and less obvious). But music means a lot to White – a musician himself, who also wrote the wonderful score for the film, and he uses music well throughout.

Overall, I thought Starfish was a film that I immediately wanted to process, talk about, read about. It goes to some surprising places in the narrative, and yet it never feels like White is trying to shock or surprise the audience. It feels natural. It’s a rather stunning debut for the filmmaker – who I think could go onto direct something that will get the attention – and generate the conversations – this one deserved to.

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