To the Stars is an uplifting coming-of-age story from the producers of It Follows and Midnight Special. Martin Thomasson reviews:
Small town Oklahoma at the dawn of the 1960s; no place for a wild child, no place for anybody with dreams they hope might actually come true.
Iris Deerborne is a dowdy teen, shunned and mocked by her classmates because she ‘smells’ (she has a problem with incontinence). She secretly admires the good-looking young boy who does odd jobs for her. Trouble is, so does her dipsomaniac mum.
One morning, on her lonely walk to school, Iris is harassed by local yobs in a pick-up truck. This is clearly a familiar scenario for all concerned, except this time the harassment threatens to turn sexual. Happily a new girl in town comes to her aid – Maggie Richmond, who swears like a trooper, has her own car and possesses the deadliest throwing arm since David routed Goliath.
Friendship between the two outcasts is not immediate – Iris refuses a lift and even fails to thank her rescuer. Things between them become even more fraught when Maggie invades Iris’s secret sanctuary – the quiet girl likes to sneak out at night to a nearby pond to scull and stare up at the stars. Moreover, Iris immediately sees through the self-aggrandising lies Maggie tells the other girls in their class. Her father hasn’t photographed models and film stars and she doesn’t have a job as an airline hostess lined up.
Maggie resolves to be impressed by iris’s perceptiveness, and Iris can’t help but be won over by Maggie’s boldness.
Back home, Maggie’s father is waiting on the porch. When she refuses to say where she’s been, he whips her. It seems the family moved from the big city in the hope of saving their eldest daughter from sin.
Unruly Maggie takes on Iris as a project – determined to help her find herself, perhaps even to help her find love. Repression, disillusionment and religious bigotry press in from all sides, and when Maggie and Iris visit the ‘widowed’ hairdresser, Hazel Atkins (Adelaide Clemens), something dangerous hangs in the air.
Visually, director of photography, Andrew Reed, makes an impressive job of creating the sense of vast, spiritually-isolating, fields of desolation – the corn here is never ‘as high as an elephant’s eye’. Martha Stephens directs To The Stars with an unhurried pace well-matched to the environment.
Structurally, there are a few shortcomings that might have been solved in a further draft of the script. “And one day, a stranger arrived…” is an ancient and powerful story structure (you can see variations of it in texts as diverse as A Streetcar Named Desire, Shane, and The Cat in the Hat). The problem here is that Maggie has the B story not the A story – that belongs to Iris.
That can work, but we haven’t really been drawn into Iris’s inner world before Maggie arrives. We know she’s bookish, because we see her carrying books (she even reads them with her lunch – although that might be because she has no friend to talk to) but, by the time we start to get real glimpses into her inner life, we’re already more drawn to Maggie. If you want to make the story about Sally and Conrad, you have to make them more fascinating than that peculiar cat and his funny hat.
The two young principals make a winning pair. Liana Liberato as Maggie has more to work with and uses it to the full to create the irrepressible newcomer, struggling with her own inner demons. Kara Hayward could use more help from the script to create Iris’s inner world, but any lingering doubts are not her failing.
In supporting roles, the two sets of parents never put an acting foot wrong. Francie Deerborne (Jordana Spiro) the mother whose parched and withered dreams drive her to drink and humiliating flirtations; her husband Hank (Shea Whigham), quiet, remote but ultimately loving. Maggie’s repressed mother, Rhonda (Lauren Ashley Stephenson) desperate to fit in and live the conventional wifely, motherly life. Even Maggie’s violent, bigoted father, Gerald (Tony Hale sinking his teeth into a complex character), is shown to be driven by love.
Will Maggie’s demons rise up and derail her quest to transform Iris from trampled weed into prize rose? Will small town cruelty bring tragedy to those in search of liberty and love?
While the climax is powerful, the resolution is something of a sugary fog. That said, To The Stars is a largely fulfilling way to while away two hours of lockdown.★ ★ ★
To the Stars is available for Digital Download Release from 1 June 2020. Certificate 12.