My absolute favourite fantasy, was for everyone to just disappear…
At its core, musician A.T. White’s Starfish is about how we connect with the world and with each other through music, or more broadly, through sound. Like recent horror standouts Hereditary and The Babadook, it’s also about how we mourn the folks we’ve lost along the way. White’s thesis is that whether it’s nostalgia, horror, disorientation, or joy you’re feeling, it always comes back to the songs you love.
Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) attends her best friend Grace’s funeral and isn’t quite ready to let go yet. She breaks into her friend’s apartment, which acts as a time capsule of Grace’s life, her loves (including what I hope will be the first great supporting role for a turtle), and the mysterious work she’s been undertaking. This work consists of unraveling the origins of a repetitive auditory signal that might just mean the end of the world. Aubrey wakes up to the realization that she’s more alone than she ever imagined, and everyone else, save for a voice at the other end of a walkie-talkie, seems to be gone.
Presented with all this, and certainly affected by the crushing weight of Grace’s death and the echoes of her life all throughout the apartment, Aubrey makes a decision that’s both unorthodox and completely understandable; she simply turns away. She shuts out the noise at first until it becomes unavoidable. The world begins to creep in, and Aubrey finds a mixtape of Grace’s that triggers a drawn-out scavenger hunt to decipher the origin and meaning of the auditory signal.
To call Starfish disjointed is an understatement. It’s like looking at the world through a broken mirror, but all the pieces make sense together if you look at them from a distance (and maybe squint a little). White tantalizes the viewer with clues that you might think will help with your understanding of the story, but really, it’s the spaces between those clues that matter the most. When you think the narrative is meandering, it’s laying groundwork for revelations at the end, even if you don’t always get the answers you might want from something so abstract. There’s just a *lot* to the film, and Starfish breaks the fourth wall, introduces an extended animated sequence, and White constantly signals that you should never expect what’s coming next.
The creature design, done with beautifully-crafted CGI, is suitably disturbing and indicative of nothing I’ve seen before, though there’s more than a little Lovecraftian influence on display. Starfish has a tendency to juxtapose meandering dullness with these bloody, visually arresting scares. Just when you think the moody, disarmingly sweet and funny narrative isn’t going anywhere, some unspeakably horrific image will appear through Aubrey’s nightmares, which begin to leak into her waking moments. Sometimes this feels cheap, like cutting a bunch of jump scares into a comedy or a drama, but when it works it’s tremendously effective.
Aubrey’s grief is the main driver of the film, and permeates every note and every beat. What comes through the most is the crushing loneliness that accompanies loss. Gardner is the only person on screen for the majority of Starfish, and she’s up to the task of keeping the viewer rapt on her next move. Gardner takes us through her loss, grief, and horror while never dragging the film down. It’ll be hard not to empathize with her as she begs for forgiveness from her friend, or attempts to wrap her head around the nightmarish creatures that inhabit her new, desolate world.
Tight, disciplined editing would be the best way to tell Aubrey’s complicated story, and for the most part White obliges. But there are certain scenes where things don’t mesh well, and this can be frustrating. In a film that often feels like a series of video game side-quests, it’s not always clear where you’re supposed to be looking next. White throws so much at you that you’ll hardly be able to process it all, especially at the end of the film. But that’s part of making the audience feel the tension and disorientation that Aubrey feels in that moment.
I’ve gone on a long time about Starfish with barely a mention of White’s incredible score and inspired music choices. Songs from White’s own band Ghost Light are heavily featured, as one expects, but look for songs from Sparklehorse, Sigur Ros, and The Notwist as well. An interesting detail about the score: White recorded piano parts on cassette tape, then distressed the recording by hand so that the score sounds artifacted towards the first half of Starfish, but ‘heals’ by the film’s conclusion, mirroring Audrey’s journey through her own grief.
Starfish is a mystery unraveled on spools of tape and it aches to be solved, but an arthouse 13 Reasons Why, this ain’t, and answers don’t come easily, or at all. Not every song (or scene) on this mixtape will be a hit, but taken as a whole, Starfish is one of the best film experiences I’ve had this year.
Starfish is currently in limited theatrical release. You can find out when it’s coming to your town here.