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Film Review: “To the Stars” Shines a Bright Light on Female Agency

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 23rd, 2020

Film poster: “To the Stars”

To the Stars (Martha Stephens, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

It’s the early 1960s in rural Oklahoma, and teenage Iris Deerborne does not fit in, either at home or out in the world. Mom can’t understand how she birthed such a wallflower, though given her own problems in a stale marriage, she often has other things on her mind, like drink and the cute boy who works on their farm. Dad is distant, and the kids at school are merciless in their scorn. Fortunately for Iris, help arrives in the form of newcomer Maggie Richmond, a transplant from the big city who is both beautiful enough to attract the popular crowd and unconventional enough to take an interest in Iris. She has secrets of her own, however, and needs help, as well, though she’s too proud to admit it. As each girl dreams of a better life, they find solace in each other’s company.

Such is the setup of director Martha Stephens’ fine new coming-of-age film, To the Stars. Though sometimes rough in its lurch towards meaning, the movie mostly succeeds in its carefully calibrated storytelling, slowly revealing additional details of characters’ lives until something completely unexpected happens. As much cautionary tale of the nastiness of patriarchy as empowering fable of female agency, it leads us to places both cinematically familiar (high school) and less so (female friendship), even if the drama occasionally misses a beat. By the end, we grow to care deeply about the characters, the eventual resolution both melancholy and deeply satisfying.

Liana Liberato in TO THE STARS ©Samuel Goldwyn Films

As Iris, Kara Hayward (Quitters) at times seems to try a little too hard to play an awkward soul, yet ultimately makes us believe in her journey. Liana Liberato (Banana Split), as Maggie, is perfect as her not-always-gentle foil, the two mixing like oil and water, yet somehow connecting. Jordana Spiro (Rachel on Netflix’s Ozark), as Kara’s mother, is deeply convincing as a woman undone by a lifetime of disappointment, and Lucas Jade Zumann (20th Century Women) shines as that sweet boy lusted after by mother and daughter, both. As good as they all are, however, they are almost overshadowed by Adelaide Clemens (Rabbit) as a local hairdresser with a secret of her own. Overall, the ensemble works well together and keeps the story moving through its less perfect moments.

These include many of the scenes at school which, though funny, are also things we’ve seen before in other films. The movie works best in its quiet scenes, as characters unburden themselves of lifelong pain, the catharsis affecting us in profound ways, as well. As Iris and Maggie grow close without quite reaching a full understanding of the other’s dilemma, the drama builds towards an emotionally gripping conclusion, making of To the Stars a stirring call to action for all young women to find themselves and venture forth into the world, letting no one – and no man – define their personal destiny. Let these stars shine brightly, indeed.

Adelaide Clemens in TO THE STARS ©Samuel Goldwyn Films

 

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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