Starfish sounds like the title of a pretentious Sundance dramedy, the kind of take-notice moniker that makes no sense in context. Surprisingly, the titular fish actually do feature in British filmmaker and musician A.T. White’s stunning debut feature. They’re fed to hungry jellyfish by the film’s disaffected heroine, Aubrey (Virginia Gardner, who starred in the 2018 Halloween reboot), as she sorts through her deceased best friend’s apartment, in one of several delightfully stirring metaphors (another sees Aubrey drinking a cup of water in which a fly is slowly drowning).
Gardner’s face is the first image presented, bright and illuminated, almost celestial in its openness. This face will be seen many, many times over the course of the movie — often shot in gorgeous close-ups — but its impact never lessens. Considering the young actress is the only person onscreen for much of the film, it’s a wonder she never loses focus. There are only two credits right off the bat, hers and the director’s, and the implication is clear. This is very much a two-hander, an artistic vision dreamed up by the creator and brought to life by his skilled subject.
Starfish, to put it plainly, deals with both abrupt loss and the end of the world… simultaneously. A grief-stricken Aubrey strolls around her buddy Grace’s (Christina Masterson) messy place, poking around everything while seemingly sifting through her own jumbled thoughts. This is a contemplative film, slow and methodical in its unraveling, which ruminates on mourning, sadness, isolation and the desire to extricate oneself from the world at precisely the moment it requires almost no effort to do so.
As Aubrey stumbles upon a walkie-talkie and begins communicating with a deliberately hostile man on the other end (his character is never featured onscreen), who seems to know her deceased BFF even better than Aubrey did, she tries to figure out who Grace really was and what her life meant in the greater context of the impending apocalypse. Outside, a kind of war rages as barely-glimpsed beasties ravish the snow-covered landscape. Starfish then transitions into a completely different film as Aubrey is tasked with saving the world by confronting her own past traumas.
White’s difficult protagonist, deep in her self-imposed isolation, isn’t interested in fighting, however. She wants to wallow. Aubrey even wonders aloud whether the world will still exist if she chooses to ignore it. Only the desire to feed herself (and her well-behaved reptilian co-star) pushes Aubrey to strap on a ridiculously huge wolf-skin, complete with head, and battle the elements outside. White and Alberto Bañares shoot the harsh landscapes with a gorgeous crispness, but Starfish is a chilly film even when it moves indoors, sharp like the biting winter air. Is Aubrey necessarily safer back in the apartment, all alone?
Gardner is a revelation in Starfish, almost unrecognizable from her Halloween role, which is lively, quippy and fun. She’s virtually the only person onscreen for the most part, communicating with others via recordings, flashbacks and what could generously be called delusions. White makes a lot of increasingly brave choices over the course of the movie, even straying into lovely, Japanese-style animation at one point, and his compelling lead rises to the occasion each time. With a lesser performer, White’s film might have felt stiff or isolating. Gardner sucks you right in, every emotion immediately readable on her face.
An achingly cool indie soundtrack gives way to a violin-heavy score (also by White) as exposed as a raw nerve, exemplifying the line between character drama and sci-fi horror that the writer-director expertly straddles. He cleverly cuts around the sometimes dodgy CGI (barely-seen monsters tend to have more impact than unconvincing creatures shown in full form, but that’s a minor quibble), while the sharp sound design ensures the many feelings evoked by Starfish are never muted. Still, there are some decent scares, delivered with minimum fuss or warning (the only time the music cuts out).
This is a moody, thoughtful and impressively weird debut feature from White. There’s an odd kind of tactility to it, almost as though Aubrey is quite literally feeling her way through the grieving process. And, as with the best Not Quite Horror flicks, the monsters aren’t really the focus. In fact, they barely feature at all. Comparisons could easily be made to the masterful A Quiet Place, particularly given the emphasis on sound design and the aesthetics of the creatures themselves, but the film Starfish most reminds me of is I Am Not A Serial Killer.
Billy O’Brien’s criminally underrated 2016 movie also features a snowy setting, an isolated young protagonist and cleverly-deployed sci-fi elements better experienced firsthand than read about in advance. Starfish‘s many bizarre delights won’t be spoiled here. Suffice to say, though, A.T. White’s gorgeously-captured, keenly-felt little film raises more questions than it answers. It’s an evocative study of a woman in emotional turmoil with plenty to say about death, life, friendship and the choices we must make to survive. Never obvious, always powerful. White is one to watch while Gardner’s star will surely continue to rise.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.