To the Stars (United States, 2019)April 22, 2020
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)
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