To the Stars (United States, 2019)

April 22, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
To the Stars Poster

For roughly the first two-thirds of its 109-minute running length, To the Stars is an effecting and effective tale of female bonding. Unfortunately, the wheels come off toward the end as melodramatic contrivances result in an unlikely climax and unsatisfying denouement. When To the Stars concentrates on the oil-and-water friendship that develops between wallflower Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) and firebrand outsider Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato), it hits most of the right notes. But the last act, in seeking to expand the canvas, loses focus on the things that work best during the balance of the movie.

The production’s setting is evocative. It’s 1960 (or thereabouts – a local theater showing The Magnificent Seven gives a clue to the date) Oklahoma. Rural communities don’t come more small-town than Wakita (the place devastated in Twister), a bastion of intolerance and insular thinking – characteristics the movie overemphasizes in its pursuit of a message. One of the problems with To the Stars is that, although it gets many of the visual period details right, certain female empowerment attitudes are right out of the 21st century and don’t fit in this time and place. Another oddity is that, when the movie debuted at Sundance in 2019, one of the most praised aspects was Andrew Reed’s black-and-white cinematography. Somewhere between the festival screening and the April 24, 2020 digital release, the movie has been transformed into color. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel echoes of The Last Picture Show when watching it.

Iris is a classic social misfit. Afflicted with a bladder condition (one that has earned her the unflattering nickname of “Stinky Drawers”), she is shunned by everyone at the high school she attends. The girls make fun of her and the boys bully her. One especially bad day, she’s walking to school and a car pulls up next to her. The boys inside taunt her and it appears the situation might get ugly until another car arrives on the scene. Inside is a new arrival to Wakita – take-no-shit Maggie who begins lobbing rocks at the boys with surprising accuracy. They take off but Iris is as mistrustful of Maggie as she is of her male tormentors. Over the next few days and weeks, as their paths cross, a tentative friendship begins. Iris senses a kinship in the brash newcomer, recognizing what none of the other girls in high school figure out – that most of Maggie’s stories about her family and background are b.s. Meanwhile, Maggie sets out to elevate her friend’s social status. That includes a makeover and procuring a prom date for her.

Iris’ mother, Francie (Jordana Spiro), is the kind of embittered woman no sensitive child should have as a caregiver. Francie’s feelings for her daughter hover somewhere between jealousy and disappointment. Iris’ father, Hank (Shea Whigham), is dismissive of his wife but shows kindness and understanding to his daughter, although they are doled out in small portions. Maggie’s family includes a mother, Grace (Malin Akerman), who’s desperate to project a “happy family” image to the community, and a frowning, strict father, Gerald (Tony Hale), who’s quick to lash out with his belt. Iris’ family is dysfunctional but there’s a dark secret in Maggie’s – one that explains why they move so frequently and have sought refuge in an out-of-the-way town.

One of To the Stars’ strengths is the chemistry between Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato. Both young actresses fall into the “up and coming” category. Liberato has been farming the indie fields while Hayward has enjoyed a little more mainstream exposure; her feature debut was as Suzy, one of the young lovers in Moonrise Kingdom. The actresses have a nice give-and-take, playing off one another’s strengths. There’s also a lesbian inflection to the relationship but it’s low-key and not forceful enough to push To the Stars into the realm of a sapphic romance.

At its best, the movie reminded me of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Narratively, the films are much different but the core of the girls’ friendship in this film reflects the one in the 1994 thriller. Had the movie maintained its focus on Iris and Maggie’s relationship, the film likely would have been stronger. The plot contortions during the final 20 minutes feel rushed, poorly motivated, and leave the viewer not with the blossom of hope that the filmmakers intend but with a sense of incompleteness.

To the Stars (United States, 2019)

Director: Martha Stephens
Cast: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Jordana Spiro, Malin Akerman, Shea Whigham, Tony Hale, Adelaide Clemens, Madisen Beaty
Screenplay: Shannon Bradley-Colleary
Cinematography: Andrew Reed
Music: Heather McIntosh
U.S. Distributor: The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2020-04-24
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Content, Adult Themes)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1