Review: Originality and Confidence Mark a Strong Debut Feature in Starfish

A mix of genres that include science fiction, horror and a deeply personal psychological drama, Starfish, the feature film debut from writer/director A.T. White, is a confident, emotion-driven work that begins as a story of a woman mourning the loss of someone very close to her and transforms into a thrilling scavenger hunt whose outcome may determine the fate of many lives—perhaps even all life. Led by a strong performance from Virginia Gardner as former radio personality Aubrey, the film takes the character on an emotionally volatile journey after her best friend Grace (Christina Masterson) dies. Aubrey breaks into the dead woman’s apartment and simply takes up residence, feeding her pets, sleeping in her bed and just generally making herself at home. But when she wakes up after the first night staying there, the world outside—or at the very least, the small town where the film takes place—has completely changed: snow covers everything, the streets are empty, parts of the town are on fire, and the few people who are spotted are running for their lives from inhuman blurs who want nothing more than to kill them all.

Image courtesy of The Orchard

Aubrey is soon made aware that she may hold the key to ending this apocalypse before it takes hold, and all she has to do is find a series of mixtapes left for her around town by Grace. They each contain music with embedded signals that have different impacts on the world around her. Some sounds make it possible for her to transport to somewhere else, while others result in some pretty impressive bouts of destruction. Grace has used clues that only Aubrey could decipher, and the film becomes something of a tour of their friendship and life together; there are sections of the film in which the flashbacks become the primary narrative, giving us two timelines that are destined to collide in sometimes disorienting but always interesting ways.

As strong as White’s direction is here, the film doesn’t work without the strength of Gardner’s performance, which spans the range of a woman paralyzed with grief to one that is energized and given purpose by this mission from her friend from beyond the grave. Propelled and given added resonance thanks to a string score composed by White, Starfish is, above all other things, a debut so impressive that gives us hope for a new generation of filmmakers with not just interesting ideas but brave new ways of conveying them. Seek this one out, especially if you’re fond of complaining about nothing original coming out from the studios these days. This might be exactly what you’re searching for.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque. Starfish writer/director A.T. White will be on hand for a Q&A after the 7pm and 9pm screenings on Friday, March 29, as well as the 5pm, 7pm and 9pm screenings on Saturday, March 30.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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