Directed by: Martha Stephens
Premise: Set in 1960s Oklahoma, an awkward teenager (Kara Hayward) befriends the sassy new girl (Liana Liberato). Together they navigate the drama of their small town and reveal the hidden parts of themselves.
What Works: To the Stars is a coming of age story and the movie works in large part because of its lead characters. The friendship between awkward good girl Iris, played by Kara Hayward, and the free spirited Maggie, played by Liana Liberato, has a lot of great moments that are genuine and affecting. Hayward and Liberato are perfectly cast in their roles and their friendship grows organically. The focus of the movie is on Iris as she discovers her own self-worth and Hayward gauges her performance to make Iris’ transformation credible. Maggie has a secret and although it doesn’t take much to tease out what she’s hiding Liberato does a great job playing her part in such a way that we can see the mask she’s wearing for other people. The film also has a notable supporting performance by Jordana Spiro as Iris’ borderline alcoholic mother. Spiro’s character is the kind of parent who envies and despises her daughter’s youth and Spiro gives the mother a quiet cruelty. The drama of To the Stars is well measured. For many teenagers, the high school hierarchy seems like the entire universe but anyone out of school knows it isn’t. The filmmakers understand both points of view and invest us in the ways these people treat each other. The mean girl drama captures the emotional rawness of adolescence but also the hope of young people whose lives are just starting. That’s supported in the cinematography. To the Stars is well shot, especially in the way it captures the flat Oklahoma landscape and the film simultaneously feels wide open and claustrophobic.
What Doesn’t: To the Stars’ portrait of rural life in 1960s America rarely ever strays from the clichés of coming of age tales. Iris is the familiar ugly-pretty girl who is picked on by the popular mean girls but her friendship with an iconoclastic outsider allows her to find the strength within herself. The young woman reveals that she’s found her backbone by taking off her glasses which subsequently attracts the attention of the aloof but nice loner boy. The familiarity is forgivable because it is done so well with a few genuine moments. But To the Stars is never especially imaginative, especially in the way it deals with the archetypal supporting characters, and much of the story is predictable with little to add to the genre of coming of age stories.
DVD extras: Currently available on streaming.
Bottom Line: To the Stars is a nice movie. It suffers from being overly familiar and the story holds few surprises or revelations but To the Stars tells this story well and its lead characters are interesting and authentic.
Episode: #800 (May 10, 2020)