Sometimes the most quiet and unassuming films pack the heaviest blow when it comes to messages about how those in society who are deemed outsiders—or even undesirables—should be treasured and protected rather than run out on a rail like some sort of abomination. Other times, films on this subject are overwritten or over-directed or both. The latest work from director Martha Stephens (co-director of the fantastic Land Ho!), To the Stars falls somewhere in between with its story of a small-town high school outcast in 1960s era Oklahoma who is befriended by a new girl with secrets of her own, secrets that both bind them together and risk tearing their friendship apart.
Kara Hayward (the young female lead from Moonrise Kingdom) plays Iris Deerborne, who is mercilessly teased by her classmates for issues she has with what she has been told is a weak bladder. Her overbearing mother (Jordana Spiro) seems content to have Iris be a homebody to keep her company, as she grows increasingly bored with small-town living and her loveless marriage to husband Hank (Shea Whigham). She even undermines any hint of Iris’s confidence to make sure she doesn’t make friends or leave the house much. Iris has an almost paralyzing crush on Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann), the boy who helps her father around their farm and probably the nicest person in their school (or the state of Oklahoma, if this film is any indication).
When new girl Maggie (Liana Liberato, Novitiate) moves to town with her journalist father (a rather nasty Tony Hale) and picture-perfect mother (Malin Akerman), she is instantly drawn to defend Iris from her many bullies because she senses a fellow outcast. To Iris, Maggie is everything she isn’t: in full possession of her identity, bold, worldly, and impossible to shock. But looks can be deceiving, and it soon becomes clear that Maggie and her family did not move to the middle of nowhere by accident; they are running away from some sort of scandal initiated by Maggie, and it isn’t that difficult to figure out that it has something to do with her sexuality.
From a screenplay by Shannon Bradley-Colleary, there isn’t much in the way of story in To the Stars, and that isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. The film is more of a character study of these two young women who are both in the painful process of figuring out who they are, as individuals and as a tight-knit pair. To be clear, this isn’t a romance, although the films leaves that possibility open for time. But at about the halfway point, it seems clear that Maggie has set her sights on giving Iris a makeover to make her confident enough to talk to Jeff. Jeff, meanwhile, has become something of an outcast himself when his mother commits suicide in a pond on Iris’s family’s property.
There are times when the girls’ two stories seem to be vying for our attention as Maggie goes through the slightly more traumatic experience of suppressing her same-sex urges to please her parents and throwing herself at one of the same bullies who tormented Iris regularly. She is secretly drawn to the town beautician (Adelaide Clemens), who is also a transplant herself, from somewhere that didn’t accept her.
For all of the elements of To the Stars that work so well, in particular the two lead performances by Liberato and Hayward, director Stephens allows some parts to only skim the surface of something better. Some of the characters are a bit too small-town stereotypical, while most of the parental figures are either kind to their kids or outright horrible, without a lot of middle ground. Still, the period elements feel authentic, and the sense of place really adds to the story being told; even a hint of behavior considered out of the ordinary is looked upon as the worst possible situation, with the expected punishing outcome. Even with its flaws, the movie feels lived in, setting the tone for everything from friendship and affection to tension and even violence. It’s an easy film to like, even if it falls short of being something great.
The film is now available on most digital platforms and VOD.
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