Features and Columns · Movies

‘Starfish’ Finds a Sad Beauty At the End Of the World

Sometimes even the best effort isn’t enough, but the effort is no less important.
Virginia Gardner in Starfish
Yellow Veil Pictures
By  · Published on October 3rd, 2020

Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime… and this week science fiction, monsters, and all too human grief are mashed together into the beautifully affecting Starfish.

“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”

The majority of the films we’ve covered here for The Prime Sublime have been lesser known genre efforts focused on action or horror, but this week’s entry is a little different. It’s still a genre film — albeit something of a genre unto its own — but it’s also far calmer than our typical fare. Grief is a universal experience throughout humanity’s reign, but while we all feel it at one point or another, it’s also something unique to our own experience. It’s ours and ours alone, and that loneliness can weigh on even the strongest among us. Don’t worry, though, as the heady thoughtfulness behind Starfish also comes paired with more visceral monsters.

What’s Starfish about?

Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) has come home to her small Colorado town for the funeral of her best friend, Grace. She has plans to leave the following morning, but staying at Grace’s apartment triggers memories both tactile and haunting. There are no ghosts here, but regret and grief hang heavy in the air. Aubrey goes to sleep and wakes up to a changed world. The town seems mostly empty of people, buildings and cars smolder and smoke from damage, and a toothy beast is traipsing around in the snow.

A voice on a walkie talkie calls out to her offering a partial explanation that only raises more questions. It seems a signal, broadcast unknowingly, has opened a door allowing monstrous creatures in from a different dimension. Aubrey discovers through tapes left behind by Grace that she had been working on a project with others exploring those signals, and she trusts — and hopes — that Aubrey can finish the job and save what’s left of humanity. It’s a daunting ask of anyone, but it’s especially challenging for someone who’s used to avoiding tragedy, trauma, and responsibility at every opportunity.

What makes Starfish sublime?

It takes real chutzpah to open your film about the end of the world with onscreen text stating that it’s “based on a true story,” but that’s far from the only bold move in A.T. White‘s beautifully touching and original Starfish. An indie film that refuses to accept its own financial limits as limitations, the movie explores grief and regret in intimately personal ways while also offering glimpses of otherworldly monsters. It’s one young woman’s attempt at reconciliation — with her loved ones, her past, and most importantly herself — and if you’ve lived at all you’re bound to recognize a little bit of yourself along the way.

Aubrey is no hero, and Starfish is no hero’s journey. In addition to not being there for her friend’s final months spent in and out of hospitals, Aubrey is also burdened with other past actions she can never take back. Did she make poor choices because she felt so little of herself, or does she feel so little of herself because she made bad choices? And is there really any difference? The nameless voice helping Aubrey (and viewers) try to understand what’s happening around her is almost a piece of herself — it leads her to connections, it helps her stand up to one of the beasts, and it’s pleased to discover that Aubrey wants to live despite the surrounding hardships at hand.

The story that unfolds between Grace’s mixtapes and the voice offer an opaque explanation, and White — who directs, writes, co-edits, and scores the film — is unconcerned with additional clarity. The core structure is evident, but gaps are left intentionally open for interpretation and for our own memories to fill. Aubrey feels alone and wakes to find herself literally so, and through smart and frequent images from her past we come to appreciate the road that’s led her here. “Do you have to understand everything to accept it?”, asks the voice to Aubrey, but it’s a question aimed at all of us. Mention of grand disasters and tragedies connected by “conspiracy bullshit” sit on the fringe offering possible explanation, but even as the film’s energy and intensity ramp up such details remain less important than what Aubrey and viewers are feeling.

Music has long offered a mainline straight into our hearts as songs, both instrumental and more traditional, can tap into specific moments and memories. White’s score shares time with songs by the likes of Sigur Rós, WHY?, Grandaddy, and more, and as Aubrey moves through a scavenger hunt to find mixtapes left by Grace it becomes a treasure map charting past pains and a bubbling hope. It makes for an immensely emotional soundtrack that aids and abets the viewers along their own mental journey. Aubrey’s own navigates friendships and friends passed on an unknowing search for forgiveness, and you will most likely feel seen along the way. Pair this film with Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story (2009) for a winning double feature about personal actions and the power of music.

While White’s vision is brought to compellingly beautiful life through its sounds, visuals, effects, and more, one of its central elements is Gardner’s performance. She’s in every scene and is tasked with connecting viewers to her story, often without dialogue, and she succeeds wonderfully. Fear, regret, and confusion wash across her face, and we share each turn, every reveal, and all of the doubts.

And in conclusion…

Starfish takes some mighty swings for such a small film with one sequence that shifts into animation and another that sees Aubrey stumble onto a film set during the production of this very movie. There’s a method to White’s apparent madness, though, even if our complete grasp on it all remains shakily inconsistent. Whether or not you understand every image and beat, you will understand the regrets and efforts felt and made by Aubrey. Sometimes trying to do what’s right can be every bit as important as actually succeeding.

Want more sublime Prime finds? Of course, you do.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.