Fantastic Fest 2018: STARFISH Depicts a Soulfully Orchestrated Apocalypse

Loss and grief drive this melodic Lovecraftian drama

Starfish marks the debut feature from A.T. White, frontman of the UK band Ghostlight. As writer/director his background forms the backbone of the film, one inspired by a a deeply personal tragedy intermingled with Lovecraftian literature and driven by music. An art form long connected to memory, mood, and healing is deployed here in overt fashion to sketch out the pain of one woman’s loss against the end of days.

Aubrey Parker (Virginia Gardner) is a woman who returns to a small town for the funeral of her close friend Grace (Christina Masterson). Consumed by grief at the reception after the service, she flees to Grace’s empty home looking for solace. Surrounded by fragments of the past, Aubrey loses herself to her loss; her only companions are her memories and Grace’s pet turtle Bellini. Amongst Grace’s possessions she discovers a mixtape labeled with the #7, and after pressing play, she passes into an exhausted sleep. She awakens to a world changed, one blanketed in snow and the wreckage of planes and cars, devoid of life save for a few unearthly creatures stalking its streets, while foreboding monoliths dot the landscape. Aubrey must now not only contend with her grief, but the clues left behind by Grace to find a way to undo what she accidentally unleashed.

The opening is the most bold and successful component of the film, a beautifully rendered sequence of fragmented memories and music used to piece together a character we never truly meet. Music fills the void left by a virtually catatonic Aubrey, imbuing Starfish with a melodic quality that marries well with its melancholia. After this initial emotional investment the film opens up to the outside, literally — a new world where the apocalypse has started to creep in, where Aubrey has to find a solution to her plight by following clues left behind by Grace, who had been preparing for what was coming. Hidden in their old haunts around town are various mixtapes which offer the key to the crisis. The concept is certainly compelling; however, the execution is a little muddled.

The use of music is immensely successful in parts, but in others it comes across as intrusive, restricting some scenes that are crying out for quiet to let them (and Gardner’s performance) breathe. Similarly, some of the sound design is used a little too liberally in the name of jump scares, often accompanying images that work to similar effect. Internalized pain causes nightmares for Aubrey, pulling from what is occurring outside as well as from her tortured past. Again, this internalization takes away from the genre elements which cry out for some impetus and propulsion to the story. Instead we have a film that is more preoccupied with mood than structure. This is further indicated with a foray into animated sequences and even a moment where the film breaks the fourth wall, a scene that feels more like a cheeky Blu-ray extra than a natural part of the composition. It all points to the filmmaker being too close to the source material and showing a lack of restraint. One interpretation is the end product is not as cohesive as it could be, nor does it afford its various elements the same amount of attention. The other is that the embrace of such personal material in this way makes for an often compelling experience. Responses are sure to vary.

Complementing an inarguably well crafted atmosphere is the production design. Grace’s home where we spend a good portion of the film is beautifully rendered, as is the surrounding town and its snow blanketed vistas. The emergence of these creatures is achieved with low-fi imagery that feels like a marriage of Silent Hill and some of the work of fellow genre auteurs Benson & Moorhead (Spring, The Endless), with unsettling but simple designs deployed well for the most part.

Virginia Gardner, who also impressed here at Fantastic Fest with a supporting role in the new Halloween, turns in electrifying work. The film rests on her performance and she delivers, holding the camera’s gaze for the entirety of the runtime, saying as much with her movement and tone as the film does with its auditory approaches. The only other real cast member is an unidentified man offering advice over a walkie talkie found at Grace’s bedside, a facet of the film that thankfully isn’t overused in terms of exposition. Resting on Gardner’s shoulders, the film is a journey through Aubrey’s stages of grief. The search for each mixtape takes her to an old haunt she once shared with her friend. Each mixtape brings in new music, memories, and other more unusual qualities. It’s in this that the healing and transportative properties of sound are explored in ways that are rather abstract and underdeveloped, but nonetheless still emotionally potent.

While the genre element of Starfish isn’t entirely successful and other aspects are a little overwrought, A. T. White’s debut feature combines raw emotion with a impressive technical deftness. A solemn and soulful effort, Starfish marks both White and Virginia Gardener as talent to keep an eye on, while serving as a reminder to the iPod generation as to the power of a good mixtape.

Starfish screens again at Fantastic Fest 2018 on Thursday, September 27th, at 2pm.

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