Al White directs Virginia Gardner in this meditative sci-fi apocalypse
After the loss of her best friend Grace, young Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) struggles to make sense of her life. It doesn't help that the world has fallen victim to what appears to be an invasion of alien beasts determined to wipe humanity off the map. When Aubrey moves into Grace's old place in an attempt to feel closer to her, she stumbles upon a gold cassette with a label that says "This Mixtape Will Save The World", on the tape is a message that inspires a quest to collect a series of others that will hopefully put everything right with the world.
First-time director A.T. White’s Starfish is a surprisingly intimate take on what is essentially an apocalyptic sci-fi story. Written as an attempt at cathartic release following the death of his best friend from cancer, Starfish is definitely a film that means a great deal to its creator. The challenge is to convey that deep seeded personal connection to the viewer, and White is largely successful in that endeavor. There may be monsters and the odd interaction with other unseen survivors also looking for a way out, but the real action all happens in Aubrey’s mind.
This is a very personal story, and as such it often feels as though the viewer is intruding upon some unknowable conflict which has the effect of occasional alienation. Starfish is much less concerned with story than it is with tone and Aubrey’s emotional truth. Left on her own as the world around her crumbles, she has no way to cope with what seems like the loss of everything she cares about. There’s no one to talk to, no one to help, and yet she has to find a way to keep living. In Grace’s death and final message, Aubrey finds the will to go on, to not let her best friend’s death be meaningless.
Though Aubrey stumbles through her own past via flashbacks and quick glimpses of the life she led before the present time, Starfish is pretty much a one-woman-show. Virginia Gardner shoulders the burden of making this film work, which is quite a tall order considering just how diffuse the story is and how much the audience’s connection and continued interest depends on her portrayal of this emotionally complex and fractured person. She carries it off well, even in silent moments providing an anchor for the viewer to the chaotic goings on around her.
White’s vision of the post-apocalyptic world owes a lot to the original Silent Hill video games. A small town blanketed under show and trapped in a thick mist in which every dark corner holds the potential for hiding something monstrous. It’s an effective visual palette on which Aubrey’s hazy emotional state and uncertainty about her quest plays out, mimicking her confusion with this oppressive atmosphere is a clever way of tying the thematic elements to the physical environment.
White’s direction and careful staging effectively establish the world as endangered by this menace. Cinematographer Alberto Bañares does a wonderful job in his feature debut of establishing the look and feel of Aubrey’s grief as it relates to the world around her. White also provides a powerful soundtrack that, while atypically poppy, also connects strongly to Aubrey’s journey and manages to incorporate elements of the plot as a way of pushing forward her cathartic journey.
All that being said, Starfish isn’t exactly an easy sell. This is definitely an example of a film in which style takes precedence over substance, but not in a bad way. The plot, such as it is, can be difficult to decipher at times, often relying on clunky exposition dumps in the form of various disembodied voices – Grace’s tape, survivors on the other end of CB radios – and it almost feels as though the film could’ve accomplished its goals without dialogue at all. The first time I watched the film, I came away feeling that, while I liked it, I had definitely missed something when it came to the plot. However, when I revisited it, I realized that I hadn’t missed any crucial plot elements, it was just that the film wasn’t particularly concerned with what was happening as much as it was concerned with the why and the how.
In Starfish, first time director A. T. White has created a striking calling card for the future, a stylish sci-fi meditation on solitude that lingers with the audience long after the film is over. It’s not going to be for everyone and it often dances around what it’s really trying to say, but after allowing the film to wash over me a couple of times, it has really grown on me. White has a great talent for writing, and if he can hone that and develop his visual style while also getting a more confident grasp on the storytelling aspects of filmmaking, I feel like he’ll be a director to watch out for.