In Oklahoma in 1960, 18 year old Maggie (Liana Liberato) moves from the city to a sparsely populated rural town. On her first day, she defends and becomes friends with class outcast Iris (Kara Hayward). The film chronicles the ups and downs of their friendship.
To The Stars had an unusual production, with director Martha Stephens and cinematographer Andrew Reed shooting for colour and black and white at the same time, with Stephens using a monitor that allowed her to switch between viewing the two different formats. This must have been a huge challenge for the production, necessitating clever choices with both lighting and colour palette to ensure that the film looked right, as if it was intended to be seen in this form, whichever version you watch. To my knowledge only the colour version is being made available at the moment, but I am very curious to see the black and white, because Stephens and Reed have certainly achieved their aim in the colour version. The muted palette fits both the period—sometimes giving the film the look of a faded photograph—and the mood of the story. Beyond this, the film looks beautiful. Especially striking is Stephens’ frequent choice to hang back and use wide shots, placing her characters in the wide open spaces of the rural setting and emphasizing both the beauty of the place and sometimes the lack of much to provide distraction.
The story, however, is less unusual than the way it was shot. To anyone who has seen a decent amount of coming of age films, this one will be familiar in most of its broad strokes. The new girl marking herself out by becoming friends with the shy girl, the bitchy cohort of cheerleaders trying to win the new girl over; the friendly boy who’s quietly got a thing for the shy girl; the family dysfunction in both Iris and Maggie’s houses; the makeover sequence in which the shy girl removes her glasses and everyone’s amazed that she’s pretty, all these things and more are well worn tropes. That said, Stephens, screenwriter Shannon Bradley-Colleary and their leads execute these familiar moments well. The story at Iris’ home works well, initially making us think that her father (Shea Wigham) is going to be the cliché of a tough dad who’s not very nice to his family, but the dynamic isn’t that simple and in limited screentime Wigham sketches a more interesting portrait, impacted by the fact that Iris’ mother (Jordana Spiro) is a drunk. The problems in Maggie’s home run more as an undercurrent. We can see that there are issues early on, as Maggie makes up pretty bold faced lies about herself and her parents to try to impress people at school. When we follow her home the discomfort is obvious, but the reason for it—while it’s clear earlier on—comes to the fore only in the third act.
The relationship between Maggie and Iris is well written and nicely played by Liberato and Hayward. Again, the characters are relatively broadly sketched, but Liberato draws out the insecurity that underlies the brashness we see in her first scene, as Maggie flings rocks at boys harassing Iris on her way to school and Hayward shows how the influence of Maggie’s outward confidence allows Iris to gradually acquire some inward confidence. Both are subtly played and impressive pieces of work. The film’s queer themes are, initially, equally subtly laid in and when they begin to come to a head it results in one of the most affecting moments in Hayward and Liberato’s performances, when a drunk Maggie kisses Iris, but immediately says “I don’t think of you that way”. It’s both the compassion with which Iris reacts and the clear but honest misunderstanding she has of exactly how Maggie means that make such an impact in a tiny moment.
Unfortunately, the film’s third act becomes more melodramatic. The fracturing of the relationship between Maggie and Iris is the only place where Liberato and Hayward’s performance come unstuck, with neither quite able to get over what feels like a forced plot turn. Even more forced is key moment of discovery, which ends up making everything that follows less impactful because it’s difficult to buy the inciting incident. This section of the film also feels very by the numbers. If the direction and screenplay help the other clichés play, here they simply live in to them.
It’s disappointing that To The Stars hits its only weak notes in its last 25 minutes, because until then, for all its familiarity, it’s an engagingly acted and often gorgeous looking piece that draws us in to both its era and its characters.