2019 Film Essays

The Monsters Are Loose: Grief and Regret in A.T. White’s ‘Starfish’

Movies about the apocalypse, as a general rule, aren’t feel-good romps. Nevertheless, given the morbid subject matter, most of them are far from downbeat. Films that take place just before or even during the apocalypse tend to be their own type of tense thriller, such as George A. Romero’s Dead films and their ilk, with the collapse of civilization occurring rapidly. The Mad Max series is just one example of the post-apocalyptic action film, movies that of course take place after the end of the civilized world, and into this category fall the recent “monsters roam the world” action-horror trend, consisting of 2018’s A Quiet Place and Bird Box, and 2019’s The Silence. This year’s Starfish, based on a general description of the plot, would at first seem to fit into this current and popular subgenre. However, the film is far stranger, unique, personal and delicate than that categorization would suggest. Director/writer/composer A.T. White has so far declined to elaborate on the exact meaning of his arthouse horror/sci-fi hybrid debut. In press interviews, all he’ll mention is the fact that the impetus for the movie was his losing a good friend to cancer while undergoing a divorce simultaneously. Many Starfish reviews pick up on the film’s unmistakable exploration of grief, but just as many neglect to mention the other half of White’s semi-autobiographical work and its reckoning with guilt and regret. Throughout his surreal, obscure, dream-like film, White places clues about his protagonist Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) and her past that illustrate why she harbors so much self-loathing, what actions she took that cause her nightmarish visions and why a film that is in part about an invasion of Lovecraftian-like monsters and a portal to their world being irreversibly opened isn’t necessarily a “bad” ending.

Starfish is so relentlessly sad, though, that it’s understandable why it seems — upon a first watch — like purely a metaphor for grief and irreplaceable loss. Apart from a brief flash forward of a conversation during the film’s climax (accompanied by an appropriately catastrophic shot of snowbound buildings collapsing and exploding) as well as a cheeky “Based On A True Story” title card, Starfish begins as Aubrey attends a funeral and wake for her former best friend Grace (Christina Masterson). White deliberately doles out information slowly, sporadically and in vagaries throughout the film, right up until its final minutes. But even in these early scenes, it’s clear from Gardner’s performance that Aubrey is grief-stricken to the point of numbness, leaving the wake as early as possible, called out by another character as “escaping.” She heads to the bar/restaurant that Grace lived above, breaks in, and decides to stay the night, needing to be close to where her friend used to exist (yet still unable to sleep next to Grace’s old spot in bed). That night, which also happens to be New Year’s Eve (a holiday that exacerbates any feelings of loneliness, failure and despair), the final part of the signal Grace was secretly tracking before she succumbed to terminal illness comes through on the radio, and the next morning, the monsters (called “monoliths” by one character) are there. For a moment, Starfish seems like it’s about to launch into a cat-and-mouse thriller like A Quiet Place, but then Aubrey intentionally shuts off her walkie talkie — her last tether to the outside world — and nests herself inside Grace’s apartment. Aubrey is “escaping” again, and in so doing, the film makes more of its intentions clear, with Gardner’s character succumbing to her grief and its attendant depression. It’s a remarkable (and highly relatable) way of dealing with an apocalyptic story, an approach that’s somehow a little more honest than characters instantly clicking into a mode of survival, flight or insanity. Eventually, Aubrey’s intention to ignore the outside world is shattered by a Monolith seemingly breaking into her sanctuary. It’s a confrontation that pulls her back from the brink of suicide, and she decides to embark on the quest laid out for her in a mixtape that Grace intended to send her: travel to the locations around town that Aubrey and Grace used to spend time together, collect the mixtapes that Grace left at each place, then play them all together at the radio station Aubrey used to work at in order to, as the tape says, “save the world.” The ensuing journey allows Aubrey to reconnect with Grace, both the memory of her as well as, in the film’s most affecting scene, some version of her, as the two have a final conversation.

Aubrey’s grief over Grace’s unpreventable loss is only part of her trauma, however, and it’s tangled up with the other major part of her struggle, which is her guilt over her actions toward Grace and others in the past. After the initial shots of destruction and Aubrey at Grace’s wake at the beginning of the film, White shows part of what will be a recurring flashback scene, with Aubrey standing in front of a man on a beach at night, removing her underwear. That scene, along with attendant ocean sounds and water imagery, is revisited constantly through the film, and is tied together with a nightmare/vision/distorted memory of Aubrey’s of a half-nude man hugging his knees and sobbing, sometimes with or without a face. These elements are presented just as sparely and vaguely as information about Grace’s past and her hunt for the creature signals, but where that information is easier to draw conclusions from, the details of Aubrey’s past remain obscure even at the end of the film. The largest clues are that the crying man is someone named Edward, Aubrey used to be married or engaged (she wears a ring on her finger, a fact “Grace” comments on, to which Aubrey replies “it’s a reminder of everything bad I’ve done”), and she “cheated” on someone. This is clearly the part of the film that is borne out of White’s experience with his divorce, and just like with the rest of the movie, all the relevant emotional information is there, even if the specifics are not. To wit: Aubrey was unfaithful to whomever bought her that ring, and that incident caused her to avoid her former best friend while she was terminally ill.

With all of this going on, it may seem that the Monolith creatures and their apocalyptic invasion are only in Starfish as a colorful backdrop, but they’re a vital part of the fabric of the story and tied inexorably to Aubrey’s character. Thanks to White’s obscuring of information as well as Gardner’s subtle, layered performance, it can be easy to miss during a first watch, but Aubrey is harboring a little bit more than just a regrettable incident of infidelity in her past. Her demeanor at Grace’s wake is due primarily to grief, yes, but also apprehension. While leaving there, she passes a group of Grace’s friends who know her as a DJ on the radio, but not as a friend of Grace’s, and next runs into Grace’s cousin Alice (Natalie Mitchell), who doesn’t recognize Aubrey visually. Alice observes that Aubrey is “escaping,” and at first seems to want to keep Aubrey from running away, mentioning how a person inside named Mark is commendable for putting up with all the mourners’ consoling, implying that Mark is someone who was close enough to Grace to warrant such treatment. Aubrey ominously mentions that Mark “looked right at me,” but didn’t speak to her. When Aubrey introduces herself to Alice, Alice kindly tells Aubrey about Grace’s letter/mixtape, but not before cooly suggesting that Aubrey should go. Later, when the monsters invade, Aubrey declines to offer any assistance to anyone, deliberately shutting herself inside Grace’s apartment. In Grace’s notes on the mysterious signal related to the monsters, it says that the signal tends to correlate with incidences of natural disasters and other maladies (not to mention, well, a potential monster invasion), and when Aubrey later listens to the signal-laden mixtapes while cooped up in the town library, she knowingly allows the “doors” that the signal can open to transport her to several places (Time periods? Or realities?), causing some form of natural disaster to occur in the background. This all leads up to the movie’s rug-pulling ending, in which it’s revealed that by broadcasting all the mixtapes at the radio station at once, Aubrey hasn’t closed the portal to the monsters forever, but instead has kicked it wide open. In a way, this can be read as a possible act of revenge from beyond the grave by Grace (her headstone carries the inscription “Always Right”). She has Aubrey find one of her mixtapes in a movie theater thanks to a ticket stub for a film called “Zool’s Revenge,” and, in one interpretation of the circumstantial evidence placed throughout the film, may have been married to Mark, who slept with Aubrey on a beach one night. Meaning, Aubrey might’ve cheated on her husband/fiancé Edward with her best friend’s man, destroying several relationships in one go. Whatever the truth, Starfish equates Aubrey with the monsters, culminating in a scene in which Aubrey confronts a creature who has every opportunity to attack her but doesn’t, the two beings regarding each other almost as equals. It makes a lot of sense, both poetically and literally, that Aubrey’s self-loathing would have her see herself as a monster, making the eventual release of all the actual monsters into the world an inevitable act, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Starfish is deeper and more layered than just a pessimistic tale of a calloused, incidentally cruel person, however, and one of the most remarkable aspects of the film is how it portrays what, on paper, would seem like failure (as well as a huge downer of an ending) as instead a moment of redemption and freedom. Despite the hints (again, depending on interpretation) that Grace may have intended the mixtape hunt as a form of revenge, there are clues that her intentions were more benevolent — the first mixtape bears the label “This Mixtape Will Save The World,” and all of the tapes put together in sequence contain the hidden message “Forgive + Forget,” a phrase that can also be found carved into a table at Grace’s bar, with the added inscription “A+G.” In the interpretation that Grace screwed Aubrey over, this inscription could be taken ironically, a rejoinder, implying that Grace did not forgive Aubrey for abandoning her amongst other things. The film, however, portrays the final scenes not as tragically devastating but as quietly revelatory — Aubrey ventures out to the water-like portal the signal has opened up, steps into it and recalls her previously repressed past openly, accepting it and herself. Ultimately, White’s film is metatextual, using all its elements to reckon with some heavy and irreconcilable emotions, and as such the movie operates on an emotional logic. At no point during the film’s runtime is it clear what, if anything, is actually “real,” and there are many instances and clues to help conclude that some or all of the events are an illusion — Aubrey wonders, at one point, if she’s actually just dead herself, she suffers a nose bleed near the beginning and ending of the movie (a visual implication that Aubrey may suffer from her own terminal illness) and there’s even a scene that implies that all of this may just be a film entitled “Starfish” starring Virginia Gardner and directed by A.T. White. All of the fantasies/hallucinations/alternate realities are just more instances of Aubrey escaping, however, refusing to confront her grief and guilt and trauma head on, to accept her part in it and move on, to forgive and forget. She’s able to do this once the mixtapes are assembled (a mysterious character claims earlier in the film that the monster’s code is “only dangerous when fragmented”), to achieve a catharsis through the emotional purity and power of music. Despite her actions in the past, Aubrey learns that everything else she’s suffering from is beyond her control — she can’t stop a full-scale monster invasion, she can’t change the past and she can’t cure killer diseases. All Aubrey can do is float inside her own little fish tank, a starfish among larger jellyfish, who may or may not eat her. Starfish is undeniably a challenging film, and it may be one that is never fully, officially explained, for only White knows what the actual details of the plot are and what they mean. For this writer, however, who has suffered his own bouts with debilitating illness, guilt, depression and loss, it’s an incredibly affecting experience, a movie that knows that while emotional catharsis through music may not save the actual world, it can certainly save an individual’s world.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City. 

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