Synopsis: Under small town scrutiny, a withdrawn farmer’s daughter forges an intimate friendship with a worldly but reckless new girl in 1960s Oklahoma.
Stars: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Adelaide Clemens, Lucas Jade Zumann, Malin Åkerman, Tony Hale
Director: Martha Stephens
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I open my review of the new coming-of-age drama with a familiar slap on the wrist to myself. Yes, once again I did the film I was about to see a disservice by reading the little blurb about it first and getting to the “coming-of-age” part and doing one of those exasperated “Blerghs”. Like a badly drawn character from the Sunday comics, my next thought bubble was, “now you’ll tell me that it’s set in the South in the 1960s”. Sure enough….a small Oklahoma town in the 1960s is where the action of To the Stars takes place. The one thing that intrugied me, though, is when I read the movie was shot in black and white…which I found interesting because so few movies go that route. So let me say I was a little fraught when I started the movie and it was in full dust bowl color…a pause and a scan of the internet told me that while the movie was shot in B&W and premiered at festivals in that format, the wider release would be in color. Huh. Ok.
All this to say that for whatever reason I came to this indie film in, how should I say it?, not the best spirit. I recognized that, though, and promised myself to work hard at letting all that go because the movie deserved my honest feedback. Turns out, I didn’t have to work hard at all because this is one fine film, a surprisingly moving bit of entertainment boasting genuine heartfelt performances. Well-paced and taking the kind of turns I wasn’t expecting at the beginning, it may follow some familiar rough roads but it’s when it veers off in its own path that it really soars.
When mousy Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward, Moonrise Kingdom) first meets fireball Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato, Banana Split), she doesn’t know quite what to make of the new girl in town. A gang of bullies that have found a reliable target has just stopped Iris on her way to school and Maggie isn’t aware that Iris rarely puts up a fight. Though Maggie tries to fit in by standing out in their small town school crowd, she only connects with Iris when the two share of moment of vulnerability late at night at a pond between their houses. A friendship blossoms where Maggie encourages Iris to come out from the shadow of her well-intentioned but wrong-headed mother (Jordana Spiro) and Iris helps Maggie tear down some of the defensive walls she’s built up, eventually revealing why her family suddenly moved to their small town.
Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s script has a languid way of developing at first, slowly letting the friendship between the two girls come center stage. The first half perhaps spends a tad too much time involved with school politics, namely the way Iris is shunned by the cool girls who are mean to Iris just…because. (It’s a big pain point of the script that none of the antagonists are ever given any background/reason to their actions.) In a set-up that reminded me of Muriel’s Wedding, the cool girls glom on to the ‘prettier’ Maggie, who would rather spend her time with Iris who she senses (correctly) is far better for her than they are. Scenes with Maggie and her parents (a staid Tony Hale, Toy Story 4, and Malin Åkerman, Rock of Ages) are fairly interesting because it’s clear something is going on in the family dynamic but just what that is only comes to light later on.
What the script does provide, even in small doses, are some excellent moments of authenticity not just for the two leading ladies who are both resolutely excellent throughout but for the supporting players. From Shea Whigham (The Quarry) as Iris’s soft-spoken and supportive father to Spiro as her boozy mother that flirts with anything that moves. I was also quite taken with Adelaide Clemens (The Great Gatsby) as Hazel, the town hairdresser who plays a special role of comfort as the film continues. To say more about how all of these complex characters factor into the surprising turn of events would rob the movie of some of its emotional kick but director Martha Stephens guides it all with a delicate touch.
Watching the movie, the whole black and white business was always on the forefront of my mind. At first, the wide shots of the open Oklahoma prairie land seemed like the perfect way to utilize the film stock drained of color but quite a lot of the movie is set at night. I actually think the decision to flip to color was the right one because seeing that a few major events happen in the darkness, it especially helps as the film moves toward its bittersweet conclusion. A wise choice for a wise movie. Don’t miss this one – it’s one of those I think you could easily recommend to others.