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To the Stars

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Oct 23, 2019
'To the Stars'
'To the Stars'  

Martha Stephens' film "To the Stars," brings to mind, in a way, the 2015 Todd Haynes near-miss "Carol." A coming-of-age story in which youthful love and friendship crash on the rocks of small-town small-mindedness... not to mention the misplaced sexual interests of adults who have either never grown up or who cling to the embers of youth by yearning for adolescence... "To the Stars" is a period piece that pierces the veil of nostalgia and reminds us that if the past is gone, that's probably because it was ready to go.

The film touches on rape culture, the false front of white-picket-fence morality, and the morass of dark compulsions and rage that lurk just under the surface of an idealized America, but it also sparkles with wit and humor. In its balance of critique and promise, it's what we hoped for from that other, much higher-budgeted film from a few years back.

Not that "To the Stars" is cheap. Stephens films in black and white, and that's a stylistic choice fit to the setting, which is a small Oklahoma town in the early 1960s - the part of the '60s that was still essentially the '50s, with its rigid expectations of conformity and its scarring policing of gender roles. Iris (Kara Hayward) is an awkward, withdrawn young woman whose high school classmates either harass her (if they are boys) or mock and belittle her (if they are girls). To her peers, Iris is known as "Stinky Drawers" because she has a "weak bladder" and suffers incontinence. She's an outcast - or, as one of the school's mean girls has it, someone who spells "social suicide" for anyone who might try to befriend her.

That all starts to change with the arrival of Maggie (Liana Liberato), a new student from the big city whose mouth and manners are like nothing the locals have ever seen. Catching sight of a trio of boys bullying Iris, Maggie picks up a few rocks and sends the guys scurrying off, her threats and insults pelting them as hard as her well-pitched stones. Though Iris is initially reluctant to allow Maggie to get close, the two eventually bond over a shared love of night swimming at a local pond - a place where, as the locals know, a woman once committed suicide by drowning herself.

That woman's son, now a teenager himself, is named Jeff (Lucas Jade Human), and he works as a hired hand on the family farm run by Iris' father, Hank (Shea Whigham). While Hank is busy tending the cattle, Iris' mother, Francie (Jordan Spiro) - bored, drunk, and still beautiful - makes a play for Jeff's affections; the young man is attracted, instead, to Iris, which is an ironic twist given that Francie is obsessed with dressing iris up in a home-made dress and sending her off to the upcoming prom.

But Iris, lacking in confidence, has no plans to attend prom with Jeff or anyone else... until that is, some of Maggie's self-possession begins to rub off on her. (A day spent playing hooky from school to visit a hair salon and a cosmetics counter doesn't hurt, as far as that goes.) While Francie watches from the sidelines and seethes, Iris begins to blossom.

Francie isn't the only adult in town with eyes for someone far too young; Maggie, too, has drawn the attention of a lonely local. As the girls' friendship grows, the film focuses on their sisterly bond, but will that be undone by the busy-bodies, the mean girls, the high school jocks, or the toxic, frustrated men who fill the town with judgment, gossip, and sexual threat?

Screenwriter Shannon Bradley-Colleary deftly draws the lines of the story's various conflicts, but doesn't allow those lines to strangle the story's ability to bring freshness to familiar beats and stereotypes - though she does show how fragile and borderline hysterical American society of yesteryear (and, by extension, today) is beneath its veneer of moral rectitude. It's one thing for men to be men, evidently, but allow a few sparks to fly between women and the good citizens of the village start to melt down like... well, snowflakes, really. Like all stories that turn an eye to the past, "To the Stars" is a comment on today, and the film skillfully builds tension to the point that, when Iris gives voice to that commentary, it's a cathartic, triumphant sense of arrival.

Not just another love story anchored in the pains and miseries of coming out as different in a place and time where difference is punished, "To the Stars" promises us something a little different and a little unexpected. To get there, it plays rote story points - but in this case, it's less the bricks from which the house is constructed that matter than the mortar, a unifying sensibility in which smart, tough female energy is given its due and a place to shine.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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