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A stunning directorial debut from A.T. White, “Starfish” is a deeply personal and beautiful apocalyptic tale of loneliness, loss and Lovecraftian horror.

“Is this real?” That’s the question Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) asks of her dead friend. As an audience member, I couldn’t tell you.

There is so much to unpack in STARFISH’s beautiful, dreamlike narrative of grief and absolution. In most films, a world devoid of people filled with vicious, otherworldly monsters would be the central conflict, but in STARFISH, the apocalypse is little more than a backdrop to Aubrey’s internal struggle.

Aubrey’s world ended a few days prior, with the death of her best friend Grace (Christina Masterson). Aubrey has since broken into Grace’s apartment, living with the memory of her friend. She drifts through echoes of a life interrupted; dishes still in the sink, a depression on a pillow, jellyfish still waiting to be fed…and a tape spray-painted in gold.

A label on the tape reads: THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD.

Aubrey wakes from a dream into a nightmare. All the people in the snowy mountain town are gone. Spectral monsters roam the streets. Grace’s old walkie-talkie chirps, with a mysterious voice telling Aubrey what happened. There are signals hidden in broadcasts. These signals have opened doors to other worlds. Aubrey finds a message from Grace; she’s hidden tapes with each of the seven signals throughout the town. Aubrey alone has been entrusted to find the tapes and assemble them.

But Aubrey feels no call to save the world. Deprived of the one real connection in her life, she has no use for people anymore. She retreats into the cocoon of the past. With no power, she draws on the TV. With no water, she washes in snow. It’s only when the food runs out that Aubrey begins the hunt set out for her.

I won’t spoil the ending for you. Suffice to say that between fighting off monsters and transporting across dimensions, Aubrey is faced with a choice between opening herself up to new beginnings or closing those doors forever.

Virginia Gardner is mesmerizing in this role of Aubrey. Whether she is chatting with a pet turtle or warding off a Lovecraftian beast, Gardner grounds the role, bringing it both humor and truth. She makes the surreal feel real.

Writer/Director A.T. White has crafted a gorgeous world — every frame is beautiful — and trusts his audience to put each piece of information together, to decode the random phrase or flash of memory that hints at Grace and Aubrey’s shared history. The monsters, shadowy and impressive, work excellently as a metaphor for grief. That trauma that is half glimpsed at first then becomes bolder and hungrier as the days pass.

While this film isn’t perfect — the animation sequence seems out of place and the apocalypse narrative doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny — there is an intimacy to STARFISH that makes you understand Aubrey’s loss in a unique way, a language of absence that White absolutely nails. Aubrey, alone for most of the movie, inhabits a solitude that feels like one half of a conversation.

There are a number of horror films that deal with grief: DON’T LOOK NOW, HEREDITARY, even the SILENT HILL series of video games. Few have been able to tackle the loneliness, the self-absorption that muffles the outside world. STARFISH does all of this and more.

Yellow Veil Pictures will be handling the limited theatrical run, featuring A.T. White in appearance at numerous dates. The theatrical rollout comes in advance of 1091 Media’s The Orchard’s Digital and VOD release in May of this year.

Starfish begins its theatrical roadshow tour starting in NYC on March 13 with a rollout in other cities through late April, followed by the Digital/VOD release May 28. Full list of theatrical dates can be found here:http://starfishmixtape.com/theatrical.html.

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