A.T White’s debut feature film, Starfish, promises to be a strange, cosmic journey from the very start of the opening sequence. Beginning with a pitch black screen as voices cut in and out, disrupted by static which emits the feeling of a far away radio transmission, the first image we are shown is that of a snow covered mountain town, with a small and mysterious fire in the distance.
Starfish follows a woman named Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) grieving the debilitating loss of her recently deceased best friend, Grace (Christina Masterson). The first act of the film serves a strong, meditative look at loss, following Aubrey as she enters Grace’s home and flashes fragments of their memories together as she tries to live in a world without her. However, when Aubrey wakes up the next day she finds that strange creatures have entered her universe through some sort of radio signal that Grace was researching with a group of conspiracy theorists. Aubrey embarks on a scavenger hunt to find seven mixtapes created by Grace so that she can play them all together and save the world. What ensues is a stylistically diverse and experimental look at grief, guilt, and self-forgiveness.
Being White’s first debut feature film, having made a score of short films before this, there is a lot to be commended in the execution of Starfish. Namely, his strong handle on the tone and style of the film that was clear from the very beginning. Labeling Starfish as a “cosmic horror” feels like the perfect way to explain its idiosyncratic style. As Aubrey travels through the snowy landscape of her town, donning an incredibly badass cape made of wolf fur, with a mouthed hood to match, she collects strange mixtapes that play melodic indie tunes that seem to transport her to alternate dimensions. Although this is never quite explained (and in my opinion it is much better this way), it is communicated cleverly through shifting cinematic styles. Most notably, there is an incredible animated sequence that plays halfway through the film with absolutely no dialogue as a song plays hypnotically distorted through a cassette player. Another time, there is a playful fourth wall break, and none of these changes feel out of place, instead helping to define the tone, detached from the world just as Aubrey seems to be as she deals with the dissociation from reality that comes with heavy grief.
If anything, one of my largest complaints is the dialogue that does attempt to explain the events occurring in the film. Starfish focuses almost entirely on Aubrey and her journey, but there is also a radio with the distorted voice of a man on the other end, which seems to serve only as a way for both of them to verbally communicate certain rules of the plot in the post-apocalyptic world that has been created. What this film excels at, though, is its ability to create a powerful and unique mood without any words at all. I feel that the film would have worked a lot better if it had allowed itself to be more experimental and not feel the need to explain itself to the audience. The style is so strong that it could afford to be even more strange and less worried about whether the audience fully understood, but instead the script worked overtime to explain a plot that would have worked better had it not been explained at all. In the same vain, the film felt almost too slow in the middle, and even though it managed to pull me back in at multiple stages throughout the film, there is a difference between meditative and sluggish.
In spite of these issues, I cannot help but be excited to see more from A.T White in the future. He has a clear artistic vision and an eye for beautiful imagery. There is a patience in this film that no doubt comes from the own personal grief and self-inspection that went into this film, and when thinking about the fact that White directed, wrote and composed this film, there is a lot to be impressed by in this debut.