A.T. White’s debut feature Starfish celebrated it’s world premiere at the 2018 Fantastic Film Festival, bringing Texas film fans a horror steeped in grief and the search for meaning. Starfish has been described as a cosmic, Lovecraftian horror but the film stays very grounded throughout. One of the most ambitious films of the festival, Starfish is a puzzle box of a story with so many moving parts that it will require a second viewing to fully grasp its meaning.
I’m a huge fan of movies whose stories are forged in 3 dimensions, and while I think this approach made Starfish just a little too hard for me to fall in love with, it is a good example of how a story can remain so well hidden from you. Like any 3-D movie you’d see at the theatre, your protagonists and their journey are front-and-center, but there is a whole other world behind them just out of focus. The plot of Starfish is deceiving simple and easy to follow until you realize it’s only one piece of the puzzle, and the real story is played out in the background. You underestimate the film just long enough that when things are suddenly not as they seem, you are snapped back to attention and fully engaged.
“Starfish is a puzzle box of a story with so many moving parts that it will require a second viewing to fully grasp its meaning.”
Starfish follows Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) as she grieves the death of an old friend in a town she had hoped to leave buried in the past. Our tortured protagonist has a history with this place and we get a sense right away that her return has brought shame and regret back into her life. After hastily leaving the funeral reception, Aubrey breaks into the apartment of her deceased friend to quietly mourn. She runs her fingers over words the two carved into a table, and plays music that that used bring them closer together before they were so very apart. Aubrey falls asleep listening to a mixtape hoping, as we all have, that the world will somehow be different when she wakes up.
By morning, everything has changed. Sometime while she slept the apocalypse came knocking and the town has fallen victim to some unseen catastrophic event. The streets are empty, buildings are destroyed, and creatures roam the city looking for survivors. The only evidence of human life left in her world is a mysterious voice on a walkie talkie and a series of all-important tapes hidden by Grace for her to discover. The tapes force Aubrey to leave the safety of Grace’s apartment and revisit the old stomping grounds that still haunt her. Aubrey is unsure what these tapes are for but she ventures out time and time again, hoping that tapes will somehow unravel a mystery, provide closure, and save the world. Mostly because the first tape she finds is labelled “THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD”.
I’m really impressed with the ambition of Starfish. It strives to tell a story so far beyond its indie means that A.T. White was surely told he was crazy countless times before going into production. It’s films like this that help signal to us a new voice that will go on to create fascinating, thought-provoking films. And while Starfish is also one of those movies, I had a hard time trying to understand exactly what they film wanted to tell me. I will no doubt have a better understanding of Starfish‘s complexity after a second viewing, but I was left so stranded in that initial watch that I haven’t yet wanted to climb back up that hill.
At times Starfish is very guarded, hiding everything it can from you. The movie keeps all important information on a slow, restricted drip. Until the ending when we are handed a string of exposition from the mysterious voice on the walkie-talkie. It’s not that all the answers are suddenly handed to you, and all-at-once everything makes sense, but it feels so unlike the rest of the film that it left me doubting the strength of the story’s intricacy.
“Starfish is very clearly a labor of love, perfect for fans of complex sci-fi journeys into the recesses of the human soul.”
Complaints aside, there are moments when our story really begins to unravel that so impressed me I forgave and forgot any vagueness that was working away at my patience. Perhaps I’m just not smart enough to find the meaning behind everything I saw. Starfish is very clearly a labor of love, perfect for fans of complex sci-fi journeys into the recesses of the human soul. It’s a deeply complex film with twist and turns and hidden meaning, and I hope to one day see the film for what it really is.
Starfish celebrated its world premiere at the 2018 Fantastic Film Festival, with world wide sales rights picked up by Yellow Veil Pictures just days before the festival. Previous Yellow Veil Titles include the punk rock slasher The Ranger and experimental possession film Luz. Check out all of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantastic Fest coverage here!