starring Virginia Gardner, Christina Masterson, Eric Beecroft
written and directed by A.T. White
by Alice Stoehr Leadville, Colorado is a couple hours' drive from Denver. Ensconced among the Rockies, it has the highest elevation of any American city. The town's forbidding winter serves as the backdrop for the apocalyptic horror of Starfish. Essentially a one-woman show, the film stars actress Virginia Gardner (of last year's Halloween) as Aubrey, a DJ with tousled blond hair and a mustard sweater. She's visiting for the funeral of her friend Grace, whose loss devastates her and sets a pervasively wistful tone. That night, she sneaks into Grace's apartment, immersing herself in what are now keepsakes: her vinyl collection, her yellowing letters, her surviving pet jellyfish and turtle. Fernanda Guerrero's production design is precise and analog, suggesting a place where dust has recently begun to settle. Aubrey peeks through an antique telescope and sees a neighbour's window, this distant vertical block in a sea of darkness. A man and a woman strip, then climb into bed together. "Perv," laughs Aubrey. Later, she lies on her late friend's couch and stares up at the wooden ceiling, where she envisions that same couple superimposed as she tries to masturbate. The first quarter of the film abounds with these lonely details. A slow zoom into an old TV's convex screen reveals Aubrey's faint reflection as she talks to her mom on a curly-corded landline. Eventually, she falls asleep, and the plot begins in earnest.
Once the world begins to end about half-an-hour in, the screenplay tends to move in circles. The same tantalizing imagery continues to tantalize, but the pacing's baggy. Though this works as desolate sci-fi, like the Kiwi classic The Quiet Earth or last year's A Quiet Place, it lacks either of those predecessors' forward thrust. By planting Aubrey in one place, White's likely trying to demonstrate the stagnation brought on by grief. The scavenger hunt, however, is too whimsical and the genre plotting too involved for the film to pull off that mode. Starfish's faults might be best described in culinary terms: half-baked, undercooked, like a soufflé that's failed to rise. It's a showcase, really, for White's visual acuity, Gardner's ability to act solo, and the effects team's CGI monster designs. (At one point, Aubrey pauses to watch a many-legged behemoth lumber across the frame, and the sight is duly impressive.) Lyricism with a palette of frosty pastels is nothing to scoff at. The first act of Starfish, with its oblique dialogue and shallow focus, is so lovely that it scarcely requires the pleasant if shallow film beyond it.