Starfish (2019) by A.T. White
Review by Andrew Swafford
“It’s not really a horror film.”
The phrase has plagued film discourse and film marketing for the past few years now, with horror filmmakers attempting to appeal to broader audiences by distancing themselves from their own form for fear of being seen as either low art (in the eyes of the art house crowd) or cheap shocks (in the eyes of scare-averse multiplexers). Last year, I wrote a whole thing about the fundamental ignorance of John Krasinski coining the term “elevated horror” in a foolhardy attempt to one-up a genre he clearly didn’t understand while making a movie that only intermittently worked as a particularly mindless horror film and never as a sentimental drama. So let’s just take it as a given at the outset here that horror is a completely valid form of artistic storytelling with a rich and colorful history worth embracing wholeheartedly.
With that said: Starfish is not really a horror film. It’s something else – and that something is kind of beautiful.
Symptomatic of the idiosyncratic marketing game that is indie film distribution, it is not the art house public nor the ever-distant multiplex that has celebrated director A.T. White’s debut feature, Starfish – it’s the horror crowd. After getting a positive reception from genre fans at Fantastic Fest last year, Starfish has gone on to screen at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, Canada’s DEDfest, Chattanooga’s Frightening Ass Film Fest, Mexico’s Mórbido Film Fest, Kansas City’s Panic Fest, and the supremely horror-friendly Central Cinema right here in Knoxville.
Despite decorating itself with horror trappings – an alien invasion, the end of the world, a plethora of jump scares, and some heavy thematics about death and grief – Starfish is a quiet and meditative affair, more reminiscent of Morvern Callar, Melancholia, or Je, Tu, Il, Elle than anything in the horror canon. The film centers on the emotional reality of a young woman (Halloween 2018’s Virginia Gardner) who locks herself in the apartment of her recently deceased friend with only a mixtape to keep her company. I could explain more about how this all ties in to the aforementioned invasion/apocalypse, but such a description would do a disservice to the film’s commitment to tone and texture, suggesting a lizard-brained fight for survival rather than the experience the film is really concerned with presenting: that of just sitting in the home of a loved one who’s passed on, losing oneself in memories of them and not knowing how to move forward. It, of course, feels like the end of the world. White’s film is less interested in the logistics of that apocalypse and more interested in the feeling.
Because of Starfish’s emotions-first approach to storytelling, I’m very fuzzy on the logistics of how the story plays out, not even a week after seeing it – what I’m instead left with are a collection of poetic associations and surrealistic touches: the waves that gently crash against a couch the protagonist is sleeping on, cutlery that begins floating as she leaves the room, or a handful of dead starfish slowly sinking to the bottom of an aquarium. In short, the film presents the apartment of the deceased as a surreal, quasi-enchanted space of magic and memory. Over the course of the film, the audience learns little about the dead woman’s actual life or her relationship to the protagonist; it begins after the funeral (and perhaps after a recent breakup from another character?) and feels no obligation to give backstory in order to make this the protagonist’s grief feel “deserving” of your sympathy – the film takes as a baseline assumption that it is, and that the emotional space of this experience is worth engaging with directly.
Just as the film uses the physical space around the protagonist to reflect her interiority, it grants a similar importance to the textures of sounds. The central character of Starfish works a radio DJ, and it can be assumed that her deceased friend did as well, what with the mixtapes that the latter leaves behind for the former – and the analog media formats that much of their music is contained within give the film much of its texture and atmosphere. Starfish, almost devoid of plot-centric dialogue, lowers its sonic palette to a hush so that each layer of tape his and scratchy vinyl can be not only heard but felt as only analog media can. (There’s a certain timelessness to these analog formats, too, making them perfect vessels for the memory of a loved one to live on through. Worth noting here is that there are no reference points to when the film takes place – the tombstone that would serve as the movie’s only temporal marker has had its engraved dates obscured by weathering.) The film’s low-key, microtextured soundscape makes for jump scare stingers that are all the more jarring, especially so because they’re rarely connected to any on-screen action – but are, rather, rapid fluctuations in the protagonist’s psyche. If Starfish was a traditional horror film, of course, this extreme dynamic range would be utilized as a scare mechanism (i.e. A Quiet Place, in theory), but here the purpose is almost purely thematic / emotional.
The soundscape of the film is clearly a priority for writer-director A.T. White, who also composed the score for the film. Much of the scratchy, tactile atmosphere described above is achieved with this score (as well as the way it’s been mixed), but perhaps the greatest testament to White’s work as a composer here is the way in which his original music blends so seamlessly with some of the licensed tracks – most notably the Sigur Rós song “Ekki múkk,” which plays over Starfish’s climactic sequence. As a general rule, I feel like any movie that uses Sigur Rós to sell a big cathartic moment is more or less cheating (and typically, bound to be upstaged by the cinematic nature of the music itself), but the song feels completely interwoven with the aesthetic of Starfish, both auditory and visual – and the imagery of that sequence in particular is something to behold, as the film washes out into flickery, grainy black-and-white in order to capture a pirouetting figure, achieving an emotional resonance that, like the music of Sigur Rós, goes beyond words.
There are certain sequences in Starfish that may, to some, feel wildly incongruous with the film’s overall tone of quiet introspection. Certain indie rock songs included in the soundtrack feel inordinately peppy for the moments in which they’re placed, there’s a somewhat gimmicky inclusion of a certain platitude near the film’s end, and two digressive scenes – one animated, one metafictional – might completely break the experience for some viewers. Your mileage may vary; I was fortunate enough to attend a screening that was followed by a Q&A by White, and his comments on these sequences in particular were illuminating, explaining that they’re representations of dissociation, like the kind he felt while battling depression after a close friend died and his marriage fell apart. I may not have made that specific connection to dissociation myself without his explicating it, but the fact that the film comes from such a personal place is something you can feel in your core.