In his debut feature Starfish, first-time filmmaker A.T. White (frontman of the UK band Ghostlight) mixes science fiction, Lovecraftian monsters, and a stirring indie soundtrack to convey a deeply personal story about grief and loss. Starfish follows a grief-stricken young woman across a stark winter landscape in search of a series of mixtapes that could save the world. While the film’s narrative is sometimes jarring and aimless – including a random animation sequence and a mystifying fourth wall break – the creature designs are unique, and the apocalyptic atmosphere complements the themes of sorrow and despair.
Aubrey Parker (Virginia Gardner) is grieving over the death of her best friend Grace (Christina Masterson). After the funeral, she breaks into the dead girl’s apartment, seeking retribution and privacy to wallow in her inescapable sadness. The walls of Grace’s flat act as a scrapbook of her life, plastered with memorabilia outlining the history of the girls’ friendship. Not ready to let go, Aubrey embraces the quiet solitude of the house, passing the time by taking care of Grace’s pets – including an adorable turtle named Bellini – listening to records, and spying on the neighbors through a telescope. The melancholy of these solitary moments implies these are activities the girls once enjoyed together. Before drifting off to sleep, Aubrey inadvertently triggers a mixtape left behind in the cassette recorder, transmitting a cryptic signal that sparks the end of the world.
Anyone who has been bogged down by grief will relate to Aubrey’s initial instinct to pull the covers over her head and ignore the impending apocalypse. The writer/director effectively uses Armageddon as a symbol for that crippling despair, and the film is strongest when exploring these more emotional and universal themes. The sci-fi and horror elements, on the other hand, lack the same intensity. The creatures, while a visually interesting representation of Aubrey’s inner demons and her struggle to let go, never seem to pose much of a threat.
Armed with instructions left by Grace, Aubrey embarks on a perilous hunt for a series of hidden mixtapes that supposedly hold the key to saving the world. Listening to the tapes induces traumatic flashbacks to wrongs she committed in the past, depicted through convoluted, hallucinatory music-video dream sequences. While the second act ponders music’s power to transport us to another place, it’s often unclear what Aubrey is experiencing or learning from these fractured realities.
Despite some bumps along the way, A.T. White’s debut works best when evoking the essence of grief through sound. Music becomes a living part of the narrative, speaking for the character when she cannot and transporting her back to good times and bad. Enhanced by Virginia Gardener’s performance, an upbeat indie soundtrack, and beautiful imagery, Starfish mixes genre cinema and music to create a unique portrayal of loss. Every mixtape becomes a chance for Aubrey to momentarily reunite with Grace, reminding us of the unifying power of music - and in 2018, the lost art of saying "I love you" through a compilation of songs.