When a loved one dies, it can feel like the end of the world. Your grief consumes you, sucking you into an abyss of pain where the only breaks from the darkness are harrowing jolts of memory and regret. In the sci-fi/horror film Starfish, writer/director A.T. White makes this metaphor literal with a post-apocalyptic drama about one young woman coming to terms with the death of her best friend at world’s end.
It begins at a funeral where Aubrey (Runaways’ Virginia Gardner) squirms with discomfort at small talk and dodges eye contact. To reconnect to her lost bff, Audrey will break into Grace’s apartment. There lie the remnants of her dead friend’s life: postcards pinned to a wall, pudding cups forgotten in the fridge, a pet turtle abandoned and oblivious, a cassette tape labeled “This Mixtape will Save the World.” Audrey pokes at the wound of her grief by wallowing in Grace’s absence. She lies on her bed, beside the spot where Grace’s pillow is still dented as if she only just walked away from it. Aubrey came to this place to be alone with her thoughts of Grace. And soon her wish will come terribly true.
She awakes to snow and strange sounds. There are no signs of life outside Grace’s window, but there are trails of blood in the freshly fallen snow. Aubrey will discover there are monsters outside. The world she knew truly is gone. But Grace is not. Not entirely. The mixtape is one of seven. A letter left behind sends Audrey on a post-apocalyptic quest, dragging her and her mementos of a friendship flawed but profound around a small town spiked with horror. White keeps the monsters mostly off-camera. They are slick, surreal nightmares. But the true terror here is the heartsickness that threatens to devour Aubrey. Grace’s death forces her to face her own mortality and mistakes. Along her journey, she will be thrown full-body into flashbacks, far-flung locales, and even an animated action sequence. With each, Aubrey questions if what she’s seeing is real or delusion, and so too are we.
Starfish is a moody and melodic exploration of grief with hipster chic and a college radio soundtrack. Littered with vinyl records and faux-boho accessories, Grace’s apartment looks like an Urban Outfitters display after the lunch hour browsing crowd has left. Beautiful but jaded with a pink to blonde ombre hairdo, Aubrey looks like a heroine fallen out a Tara McPherson painting. Her soundtrack is made up of the smoldering whines of soulful college rock. Which is all to say, Starfish’s aesthetic is very much my jam.
Its story is elegiac, intriguing, but uneven. When it comes to Aubrey’s tragic backstory, White trusts in his visuals, giving flashes of a fateful night of skinny dipping and a recurring face hollow and horrifying. But when it comes to explaining the whys of the apocalypse and how Aubrey might save the day, he unspools a string of expositional monologues from monotone-voiced men who seem to only exist to scold or instruct an Aubrey who has no interest in either. Still, Starfish is less about its plot than it is its moods.
Gardner grounds the film with a nuanced performance that allows us to see past Aubrey’s guarded exterior to the emotions that crash within her. Grief gives way to rage then remorse then love. Her performance is blistering and all the more impressive since she spends most of it by herself or playing off a CGI beast, squawking walkie talkie, or a bored turtle. Still, she’s supported by swooning soundtrack, creepy creature designs, and music video accents of animation, freeze frames, and jump cuts that emphasize emotion over realism. The result is a fantastic film that is as electrifying as it is haunting.
Starfish is now in theaters.