Grace Ross is “Always Right,” or so it reads on her freshly-erected gravestone. I say “is” and not “was” because Grace (Christina Masterson) is still very much here—not alive, to be certain, but dropping in regularly on her best friend, Aubrey Parker (Virginia Gardner).
A.T. White’s debut feature, Starfish, follows Aubrey in the aftermath of Grace’s death. Reeling from both the loss of her friend and the implosion of a past romantic relationship, Aubrey is battling her own demons when they suddenly take on a more physical presence: She inadvertently triggers an apocalyptic event that brings with it monsters of all kinds.
Starfish is a story about ghosts, grief, and guilt; all expressed through an overarching sci-fi plot. But that doesn’t fully get at its mix of genres: It also has elements of horror, an anime sequence, and even meta-commentary on the medium of film itself. Oh, and it’s about mixtapes. The combination is an ambitious one, and the parts themselves work to varying degrees of effectiveness. But viewed as a unit, White has created a dreamlike world for Aubrey and viewers alike to grieve for those they’ve lost and atone for any wrongdoings they’re still tormented by.
It’s no surprise that the film was conceived by White as a way for him to work through real-life personal tragedy. He wrote, directed, scored, and executive produced Starfish, a film that critic Richard Whittaker aptly described as “a work of both art and therapy.” It asks us to consider what’s real but isn’t here to give us all of the answers, nor does it want us to get hung up on the ones we never get.
When we meet Aubrey at the reception following Grace’s funeral, she seems stunned. Awkwardly wearing a bright yellow sweater over her mourning clothes, she’s unable to do anything but stare at her fellow mourners. Escaping the sea of sad faces, she breaks into Grace’s apartment, where she greets her late friend’s pets—three small jellyfish and a turtle, Bellini—and navigates the space the way only a best friend can.
There’s something twee about Grace’s home: The inside resembles that of a log cabin in the woods, there are maps and twinkle lights, and every bit of technology—save for a walkie-talkie that Aubrey uses throughout the film—has a cord. Compounded by the fact that the ends of our protagonist’s hair are dyed pink, it feels at times like Starfish’s production design was inspired by a 2012-era Tumblr blog. This isn’t a gripe, though; it’s a key part of White’s world-building and helps to remove us from our own lives so that we can lose ourselves in Aubrey’s.
Grace’s ghost only visits Aubrey a few times during Starfish, but her presence is felt everywhere in her apartment. She only died a week ago, after all, on Christmas Day—the first date on her calendar that isn’t marked with a red X. (“Surgery Day!” is ominously written a week and a half prior to then.) Comforted in the space, Aubrey falls asleep on Grace’s couch while listening to music, and awakens the next morning to find that there’s been some sort of natural disaster overnight. She’s seemingly one of few people left on earth, with her only clue being a tape left behind by Grace that’s labelled, “THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD.”
White is the frontman of the band Ghostlight, and Starfish is clearly the work of a music-lover. Its plot is structured around the mixtapes that Grace left for Aubrey to find around town, and the remainder of its soundscape is comprised of indie rock, skillfully-edited effects, and White’s own score. This, combined with its lush visuals and powerful editing, makes Starfish a visual and aural wonder.
The film is less strong, unfortunately, when it comes to narrative. One can’t help but feel like the sci-fi concept distracts from the film’s emotional power instead of facilitating it. It’s also hard not to draw comparisons between White’s film and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, a more cohesive story about grief and sound (or lack thereof) in which characters battle Lovecraftian monsters.
Still, Starfish has much to offer—especially for any viewers newly coming to terms with a loss the way Aubrey is. As Grace’s ghost tells Aubrey after she unloads some of her guilt, “You have to live with that, you have to confront it. Stop hiding.” Always right, indeed.
by Sydney Urbanek
Sydney Urbanek is a writer and the founder of Reel Honey. Based in Toronto, she writes about film, music videos, and chronic illness. She knows the “Telephone” choreography but please don’t ask her to do it. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sydurbanek.