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Aubrey returns home for her best friend Grace’s funeral. She’s numb, angry, closed off and running from something awful.  Aubrey nests inside Grace’s life, sleeping at her old apartment and refusing to accept the truth. The next morning she’s alone, the town is covered with snow and horrific creatures are prowling the streets. But Aubrey can save the world. Because Grace knew this was coming and Grace made her the last mixtape humanity will ever need…

Starfish, AT White’s debut refutes the idea that cinema, or genre fiction, is simplistic with every frame. It combines a meditation on grief with an exploration of small town life, the end of the world and a star-making turn from Virginia Gardner, best known for her work in Runaways. White sets up a complex structure, a quest and a secret and then proceeds to hand us the pieces and invite us to assemble it ourselves and even decide which pieces fit together. Lesser filmmakers would fail. White succeeds completely.

A massive part of that is Gardner, who throws everything into her turn as Aubrey. She’s depressed, reclusive, quiet and most of all deeply recognizable. Grief wears this over-sized jumper and as Gardner trudges across town every element of the movie focuses back on Aubrey’s mind-set. The snow, the bad weather, the quiet. At one point, in a Socratic dialect with either herself or a ghost, Aubrey talks about how she can’t feel her fingers. ‘Disassociation’ is the answer and that word is the magnetic North the movie always steers towards.

If this was just arthouse grief with a light seasoning of genre then it wouldn’t work. But the genius of what White does here lies in how the narrative builds your perspective into it and then plays with your expectations. Early on I was convinced the entire movie was a hallucination and Aubrey was being talked out of it. By the time, in the movie’s best scene, she briefly visits the scene of the movie and watches Gardner playing her, I was less sure. The moment the ending came around I was convinced again. The moment someone presses a button on a tape deck after the ending? Changed my mind once more. This is a movie where certainty is as mercurial as the world is concrete. Where the cacophony of possibility howls against the snowed shut windows of grief. It’s incredibly audacious, all the more so for just how well it works.

Starfish is categorically genre fiction, but it’s genre fiction that’s adaptable and protean in a manner that embraces the viewer even as it challenges you. Moments of breath-taking visual choices, especially an animated sequence, sparkle all the more for the bleak scenes that bookend them. Aubrey’s strange, quiet world is beautiful as well being dangerous, a home as well as a prison. She spends the movie making choices about what it really is and we’re with her every step of the way. Trudging out across a blank page of snow. Writing our name into a world we’re still adapting to. Changing our story even as change ourselves. Watching the end shift and evolve, somewhere far in the distance. Grief, science fiction, horror, joy and the pains of small town life. All in under 100 minutes.

Starfish is complex, emotionally charged essential viewing and it’s available to stream and buy now.

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