To the Stars Review
Growing up when you have no one to depend on or understand what you’re really feeling is difficult, and a process many - if not most - teenagers experience. Going through that in 1960s Oklahoma is something else entirely, especially for teen girls and those trying to come to terms with their queer identity.
The nowhere town that Iris (Kara Hayward) grows up in is uneventful, with only the social politics of high school, her stifled home life, and the long road in between. The grumpy, traditional father (Shea Whigham) who wishes his daughter was more like other girls, the gossip and fierce competition of her peers, and the outsider who upends it all - these are all elements common in coming-of-age stories. However, director Martha Stephens’ intimate drama slowly but surely takes things in another direction.
Iris doesn’t have any friends and fails to live up to the expectations her mother thrusts upon her. Her shy demeanour is painful to watch at times, especially for anyone who struggled to socialise with other kids in their teens. But when Maggie (Liana Liberato) - a newcomer from the city - comes to town, the pair start an unlikely friendship. Together, they learn to not only bring out the best in one another, but shine a light on the parts of themselves that they’d much rather hide from the world.
To the Stars is a good-looking movie in many respects, but it’s not portraying a nostalgic vision of America’s past, nor does its small-town community come across as idyllic by any means. The scenery is desolate, the buildings are murky green and greys, and Iris is shown to be living in an oppressive world that gives her little room to be herself - or even find out who she is in the first place. The film has its fair share of levity, but it stands in stark contrast to most high school dramas with its bleak, dirtier depiction of the teenage experience, creating a window to the past that feels real and relatable - before the bigotry of the era comes to the foreground.
The clear focus is on Iris and her blossoming friendship with Iris, but we also see hints of the adult world around them. While it’s the parents that are often inflicting the worst emotional pain as they force teens into the strict boxes society has deemed acceptable, they are not outright villainised. Iris’ alcoholic mother Francie (Jordana Spiro) pushes her daughter to live up to her own glamorous high school memories, but Spiro’s performance makes it clear that this stems from her own sadness and misguided nostalgia. Similarly, Tony Hale plays against type as Maggie’s no-nonsense father, whose affection for his child struggles against narrow-minded views that were commonplace at the time.
They’re victims of the same confined way of life, forcing these buried urges to come out in anger, fear, resentment, and even desire towards the teenagers they once were. Hazel's (Adelaide Clemens) closeted feelings serve as a mirror image to Maggie’s burgeoning queer identity, and while these plot threads take a turn for the tragic, it fits into the film comfortably. Rather than a sprinkle of scene-setting discrimination, these elements are central to the story and show how we can over-complicate the already messy experience of growing up.
The prom is a major event in the lives of these high schoolers, but no matter how much they talk it up - the affair is much more mundane. The crowd is sparse and awkward, an image far closer to the real school dances most of us have endured. It’s during this scene that Stephens’ still and patient directorial style starts to shift and make bolder choices, showcasing a talent for elevating the ordinary and drawing the best from her actors.
This focus on realism extends to the central friendship between Maggie and Iris. Maggie could have easily been a sort of fairy godmother to Iris’ shy protagonist, existing purely to lure her out of her shell. This trope is deftly avoided as they both begin to overcome their inability to be vulnerable and expose themselves to another person. It gradually becomes clear that despite their polar opposite personalities they are both suffering from the same lack of self-belief, and are both being driven further away from themselves. It’s from this dark place that To the Stars finds glimmers of hope, and makes its grounded tale of love and loss strangely uplifting.
To the Stars is released on VoD from June 1st