Blending light horror with surreal visuals and propelled by a thumping indie-rock soundtrack, A.T. White’s feature debut Starfish is a sometimes-stunning, but uneven, meditation on grief. The film stars Virginia Gardner as Aubrey, a young woman who is attempting to cope with the recent loss of her best friend, Grace, and who wakes up to discover she’s just survived an apocalyptic event in which an alien species has all but wiped out civilization.
Holed up in Grace’s apartment, Aubrey finds a cassette labeled “THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD.” and comes to the realization that her friend was aware of the impending invasion and decides she must finish solving this mystery to prevent the destruction of everything.
White’s metaphors come in heavy doses, as Aubrey grapples with the crippling melancholy that comes part and parcel with losing a loved one, with Gardner delivering a standout performance as a woman isolated from the world, struggling to comprehend life without her friend.
To call Starfish a horror film is a bit of a misnomer, and may do it a disservice, considering audiences may be expecting something it’s clearly not. There are elements of horror, but these moments only occasionally appear, with the bulk of the runtime playing like a somber sci-fi drama as Aubrey works through her grief. Though seldom seen, the creatures are represented by something like a cross between a Lovecraftian demon and something from Resident Evil.
White takes a kitchen-sink approach to the visuals, with the more surreal imagery looking fantastic but never committing to any one visual style. At one point the film switches to animation for five minutes or so, which looks decidedly great but doesn’t lend much to the overall narrative, making it seem needless. In addition, there’s a fourth wall break that again seems to only exist because the director thought it would be cool.
When a film relies on dream-like sequences such as this one does, there’s the possibility of pacing issues, and that’s certainly the case here, with so much time spent giving us a pretty scene, but not pushing the narrative forward. This coupled with the aforementioned overload of stylistic flourishes make Starfish carry a student film quality.
Music plays a large part in Starfish, as Aubrey listens to Grace’s mixtape, the music influences her journey for closure, which is done to mostly great effect. Opening with Why? was a great choice, and closing with Sigur Ros properly conveyed the mixture of sadness and beauty of the climax. But like many other elements, it’s a bit on the nose.
Starfish is an ambitious, seemingly personal film that contains a few truly great moments, but it’s too often bogged down by its own hubris. Still, I could see this gaining a sizable cult following in a few years, given it gets in front of the eyes of enough people.