By: Emily von Seele
I caught Starfish at Fantastic Fest last year and it was one of the most uniquely beautiful films that I saw. Writer/director A.T White explores grief, loss, depression, and guilt in a way that pulls viewers into the headspace and soulspace of Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) — a young woman who has recently lost both a friend and a partner and is struggling to make sense of her emotions.
After the funeral for her friend Grace, Aubrey breaks into Grace’s apartment and spends the night. The next morning, she wakes up to find a world abandoned and monsters roaming the streets. She learns that Grace was part of a group that was studying “the signal” — a sound pattern embedded across the world that has been broadcasting regularly. Grace believed that playing the signal in its entirety could close the door on the horrors that await just outside of our reality. To this end, she broke the signal up and embedded it in a series of mixtapes and left them around town for Aubrey to find. Aubrey eventually accepts her friend’s quest and carefully traverses the empty town, reliving memories (both good and bad) and confronting her own guilt on a path to find forgiveness.
As troubled as Aubrey is by the loss of her friend, she is also haunted by her own demons. Over the course of the film, we learn that Aubrey’s marriage failed due to her own infidelity. Her mind repeatedly transports us to a night on a beach when she and her lover are confronted by her husband. In this moment, she relives her indiscretion in a way that forces her to see the pain that she caused the person that she loved most in the world. When she sleeps, her dreams are pulled to that moment. We regularly hear the sound of waves throughout the film as the memory constantly breaks into her consciousness and reminds her of the sins that she has committed.
Aubrey, now alone in an empty world, is trapped in a prison. It is a prison of grief and depression, but also of guilt. Guilt is a constant presence in her life, and one that will not be easily banished. Aubrey continues to wear her wedding ring as a reminder of her actions. A reminder of what she broke and lost. It’s a brand that she has given herself and that she wears willingly because she is not yet ready to forgive herself for what she did. She chooses to constantly remind herself of that horrible night and of the role that she played in causing so much pain.
In following the path laid out for her by Grace and collecting the tapes, Aubrey is finally able to let it all go. To “forgive and forget,” as the phrase that appears at several points in the film reiterates. Accept the things that have happened and move on. Life continues moving along, and we must move with it if we are to live.
When Aubrey tracks one of the tapes to a corner of the local library, she has a dream about Grace. The two have a discussion and Aubrey is able to voice many of the things that she is feeling in response to Grace’s absence. Grace asks her why she is pulling away from the world.
“I can’t forgive myself,” Aubrey responds.
“Be happy,” are the encouraging words from her friend.
Naturally, this is easier said than done, but that simple statement from Grace is enough for Aubrey to begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel and understand that she cannot live in this state of unending guilt forever.
Upon playing the tape she found in the library, Aubrey allows herself to be fully transported back to that night on the beach. She embraces the memory and, for the first time, does not turn away from it. She sees herself going to her lover, and sees the look of anguish on her husband’s face. When Aubrey comes face to face with the man with whom she had been having her affair, the camera sees him as a monster — the horrific thing that she embraced that caused her marriage to fall apart. She forces the monster under the water and drowns it, fully facing her responsibility and accepting her guilt. Aubrey acknowledges her role in past events and is finally ready to move on from this chapter of her life.
Letting go of guilt is as much a process as coming to terms with grief. There are steps that we must take in order to acknowledge our own mistakes and wrongdoings, and then refuse to live in the shadow of those any longer. We may regret the things we do, but they cannot be undone. Eventually, there comes a time when we have to stop punishing ourselves and find a way to live with our transgressions.
Forgive and forget.
Starfish is currently playing a limited theatrical run. It will be available on video-on-demand on 5/28.