Written by: Robin C. Farrell | September 22nd, 2021
The Starling (Theodore Melfi, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.
The Starling is a jumble of emotional turmoil and bizarre encounters. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around married couple Lilly (Melissa McCarthy, Thunder Force) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd, How to Build a Girl) in the aftermath of the death of their daughter, Katie. Jack now resides at a psychiatric facility, New Horizons, and Lilly struggles to hold down her grocery-store job and combats the titular, territorial starling, which leads her to therapist-turned-veterinarian Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline, Ricki and the Flash).
The beginning delivers a powerful, emotional presentation of loss. The film doesn’t explicitly state what happened but nails the smaller details: the impressions of the crib’s feet in the carpet, the encompassing silence, the loneliness. Both parties seem to avoid their emotions, just trying to get through each day. Lilly’s attempt puts her into a kind of daze, while Jack is in full escapism-mode at New Horizons. Lilly has avoided going into Katie’s nursery, keeping the door shut, in fact. When she finally does open the door and go in, she immediately empties the room and drags (nearly) all the contents out to the curb. That desire to look anywhere else but at the missing thing, the changed and broken thing, feels surprisingly relatable, despite being a portrayal of such a specific experience of losing a child.
The full story takes shape as both Lilly and Jack reveal details in conversations with Dr. Fine and various mental-health professionals. They each spend part of the film in the dark about the feelings and outlook of the other person. It’s only once they start admitting their own struggles to themselves and each other that they then start to see beyond their own pain and coping mechanisms. Everyone has something to learn here: Lilly, Jack, Dr. Fine, and even the New Horizons staff.
The soundtrack definitely could have used more musical score in place of lyric-filled songs, and the plot is fairly predictable, if peppered with unexpected and often unnecessary side-trips. Lilly’s battle with the starling, for example, often feels like a deterrent to the main plot. It connects Lilly with Dr. Fine, but otherwise provides a clunky metaphor for her internal journey. The cast is terrific, especially Melissa McCarthy in dramatic mode, and Kevin Kline is charming as ever, even in a smaller role. Sensitivity to this subject matter may differ from viewer to viewer but the ending falls short compared to the opening’s emotional punch. Perhaps, though, it is the intention of director Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures) and writer Matt Harris not to leave you in a pile of weeping pieces but rather to conclude in a slightly lighter place than we began; to breathe and smile a little easier.