The Mental Maelstrom of Starfish Exudes Empathy Alongside Suspense

This Survival Film Merged With a Scavenger Hunt is a Brilliant Concoction of Tones

Image courtesy of 1091 and Spellbound Entertainment
Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) reflects and laments on the death of her best friend Grace.
Image courtesy of 1091 and Spellbound Entertainment

The opening credits of Starfish may drop the “based on a true story” prompt, but every moment of this twisty science fiction slow-boiler feels like the filmed account of a racing mind. Rather than dwelling on footholds to societal norms, isolation reigns here, with all of the flutters, visions, shifts, daydreams, and nightmares possible. Dangling the mysteries of the fallout from an off-screen cataclysmic event, the mental maelstrom of Starfish is eerie, imaginative, and highly impactful. This poignant chiller is currently available on the Amazon Prime Video platform.

Nearly every single shot and point-of-view for Starfish belongs to a fierce-yet-fragile woman named Aubrey. Played by up-and-coming actress Virginia Gardner of Marvel’s Runaways and the recent Halloween revival, Aubrey is grieving over the untimely death of her best friend Grace (Christina Masterson). She has found herself breaking into Grace’s rustic Colorado apartment and pouring over embalmed possessions.

 A tremendous emotional anchor for Starfish is the lasting connections to friends that have been lost. Drifting across living spaces and personal items, Aubrey and short film cinematographer Alberto Bañares flash us to moments of the past shared by the two women. Proximity to trinkets or other sensory triggers can power reminders of shared interests, urges, and episodes of quality time. These fantasies evoke warmth as much as they do woe.

Aubrey’s depressive sorrow is what freezes her to this apartment. One morning, she wakes to the outdoor clues of some disaster and finds no one in town but the presence of some monstrous, monolithic figure of growls and teeth. Aubrey is contacted by voices over CB radio that know her and her whereabouts through her connection to Alice. Their urgent portending begins to confirm fears and open the avenues to clues left for Aubrey by Alice. The peak of her investigating leads her to an audio cassette with a perplexing and startling label and signal of “This Mixtape Will Save the World.”

A cassette mixtape left by Grace plays containing music capable of thwarting an invading alien threat.
Image courtesy of 1091 and Spellbound Entertainment

Simmering with “WTF is happening” anxiety, Starfish builds a fascinating and engrossing mystery thrust upon Aubrey. Bañares’s cinematography and camera work carries outstanding framing and shot selection to offer many angles of this isolation. Voyeuristic but static and still, the camera stays often on Aubrey’s gaze and keeps things hidden. Scattered throughout this apartment, hamlet town, and the overall movie itself is a wider expanse of breadcrumb clues and explanations to mundane being turned upside down by the threats that loom for her and what is or isn’t left of humanity.

Aubrey stares down the vacant and ravaged streets of her snowy hometown.
Image courtesy of 1091 and Spellbound Entertainment

Even calamity cannot beat grief. In other science fiction films with this kind of narrative catalyst of invasion or destruction, senses of urgency kick into characters and drive them through a kinetic wringer of pitfalls. That’s not Starfish. The need to move on isn’t happening on the ground. It’s happening on the inside. Throughout this ordeal, the heaviest weight isn’t life or death, but the grief of Aubrey’s fractured and heavy heart. No matter the surroundings and stakes, connections, like the one between Aubrey and the late Grace, and anchors like that are the things that will never escape our minds. Starfish is sentiment and not spectacle and it gets that vibe so damn well where others fail.

This grassroots independent film is an emergent earthquake for the soaring talents of its writer/director and lead performer. Starfish is the brainchild of A.T. White, making his feature-length debut after a modest career of short films. His passionately-honed movie plays like a survival story merged with a scavenger hunt haunted by a tinge of science fiction horror. That concoction and merger of tones make for brilliant storytelling. Filmed in and around Leadville, Colorado, the wintery setting outside really sells the direness well. The atmosphere is multiplied indoors with the little morsels of set design and prop choices everywhere in the movie engineered with high detail and lived-in uniqueness by the production design of Fernanda Guerrero and art direction from Kazunori Aoki and Masato Sibata.

The only way the withheld vagueness of Starfish works is through the towering and virtually solo performance from Virginia Gardner. Her portrayal of disassociation and dissonance amid looming danger is raw and captivating. The desire to shake her into action would ruin what she’s stewing. When Aubrey does musters her courage and strength for an obstacle or revelation, the effect is passed on the viewer with heightened investment. Seek this watchable actress out and remember her name. We need to be seeing Virginia Gardner in more places very soon.

To appreciate Starfish requires the patience and capacity to absorb empathy right alongside suspense. There is a welcome lack of spoon-feeding to this perilous predicament. Any development can bring surprise or solace. Any satiation for horror is quite secondary. If anything, music is the overarching wavelength of emotional scaffolding and release in the movie. Between the score composed by White himself (a band member of Ghostlight) and the soundtrack featuring emotive works from Sparklehorse, Why?, Sigur Rós, and others, Starfish hits reverberating sweet spots for multiple senses.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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