Going into Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, Starfish was one of my most anticipated films. First feature director A.T. White (of the UK band Ghostlight) has crafted an extended mediation on grief in the guise of a cross between an apocalyptic survival film and a sci-fi creature feature. It doesn’t entirely work, but the film’s dreamy visuals, catchy indie rock playlist and dedicated lead performance by Virginia Gardner (Marvel’s The Runaways) should net the film a passionate audience and a dedicated cult following.
The film opens with Aubrey Parker (Gardner) at the wake for her dead best friend Grace (Christina Masterson). She’s emotionally removed from the proceedings, absently starring at the sky and lost in memory. White shoots these opening scenes (and nearly the entire film) in close-ups — of Aubrey’s face, of nearby objects, of the sky. There’s an unhurriedly pace to the proceedings that lends it a dreamy feel; time passes in Starfish but it is not used structurally to help ground the film’s plot. Instead White and editor Alex Elkins use evocative, sensory-based imagery and editing to suggest that Aubrey is processing things — time, memory, grief — in her own way.
In case it wasn’t clear, Starfish is a film that is more interested in emotion than it is in plot. There is a storyline of sorts: Aubrey accidentally opens a portal that unleashes world-ending monsters when she plays a mixtape while staying at Grace’s flat. But the apocalypse, the monsters, and the search for Grace’s mixtapes — hidden around town — barely seem of interest to White. These plot points are in service to Aubrey’s grief for her lost friend, so much so that at one moment of grave mortal danger, White arbitrarily transfer the action into a vivid animated sequence that plays out like a music video interlude.
For genre fans who go in expecting A Quiet Place-style monster film, Starfish will undoubtedly disappoint. For audiences who are willing to give themselves over to White’s vision and sit with Aubrey as she processes her loss, however, Starfish is quietly powerful.
Gardner is essentially the sole character: she appears in every scene. Aubrey barely interacts with anyone else outside of her memories and a man who berates her and barks orders on the walkie-talkie. Hers is a frequently silent performance (with the exception of some voice over), one that relies on Gardner’s body and facial expressions to convey not only what she is feeling, but to draw audiences in. It’s an extremely complicated and emotional performance from the young actress and she really nails it.
The other element of note about Starfish is the music. White’s ear for music is unsurprisingly adept and the soundtrack — provided primarily by the mixtapes that Aubrey seeks out around the abandoned town — carries the film even when the plot feels abandoned or listless.
In this way, Starfish is more of an emotional, experiential film. While the lack of plot can be off-putting, the music, White’s beautiful visuals and Gardner’s mature, ethereal lead performance still make the film a soft recommend.