It’s difficult to watch a film that doesn’t stick the landing despite everyone giving it their all.
It’s difficult to watch a film that doesn’t stick the landing despite everyone giving it their all. Writer/director A.T. White’s debut, Starfish, is a passionate work full of potential and heart, but it never gets into enough of a second gear to really shine.
The film follows Aubrey (Halloween (2018) standout Virginia Gardner), a young woman grieving the death of her best friend, Grace (Christina Masterson). White frames the beginning of the tale with languid camera work, a glacial pace and an unsettling sense that something, beyond the pervasive air of dread and loss, is not quite right. Aubrey’s journey dictates the film’s tone, so the audience is placed squarely in her internal world, a harrowing mixture of recurring memories and a plasticine present.
She cuts herself off from the outside world in Grace’s abandoned apartment, luxuriating in the physical remnants of her friend’s former life—her records, her books, her idyllic little hipster existence. At first, there’s a charm to the way this frozen diorama is presented that almost makes it seem like a reasonable escape, as if it would actually be a feasible way for Aubrey to work through this pain. But then she wakes up and discovers most of the town around her is uninhabited, that some kind of unnerving, extinction-level event has unfolded outside her doorstep, and Grace’s collection of mixtapes might hold the key to saving humanity.
That White chooses to couch this deeply personal work in a genre-inflected mood experiment is somewhat unsurprising, as the very nature of Aubrey’s relationship with Grace seems to lend itself to the otherworldly. Never fully turning into a horror flick or a science fiction exercise, Starfish moves beyond the scope of the typical weepie to expand its themes to a broader canvas, turning Aubrey’s grief into a tone poem writ large against the trappings of post-apocalyptic cinema.
The film gives the intangible elements of Aubrey’s isolation and inner turmoil physical manifestations, her intense strife an epic scale implied by the storytelling but never fully fleshed out due to the film’s small budget. There’s enough intrigue here to capture a portion of the audience otherwise unmoved by the more realistic story at the film’s core, but not so much that it’d swallow that core whole, moving full bore into speculative fiction tropes.
There’s also an omnipresent indie rock soundtrack, made up of sharp cuts just varied enough to keep the proceedings from being too twee. Between the heavy emotional lifting done by these needle drops and the evocative work Gardner is doing with her performance as Aubrey, Starfish has the necessary ingredients to be something special. But those ingredients would be perfect for a slightly lengthy short film or a much tighter feature. With the specific way time is stretched out here, the 100-minute runtime feels twice that, so much of what White takes precious screen real estate to establish could easily be done in fewer, more potent minutes. The real gems are scattered throughout like Easter eggs that the viewer will have to spend multiple viewings digging for, perhaps setting up the film for a future as a cult classic, though that seems to be asking a bit much.