The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Digital] - TO THE STARS | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Digital] - TO THE STARS

to the stars review
In 1960s Oklahoma, an outsider teen befriends a charismatic newcomer.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Martha Stephens

Starring: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Lucas Jade Zumann, Malin Akerman, Tony Hale, Adelaide Clemens

to the stars poster

What a disingenuous genre the coming of age drama is. This idea that the maturity, the understanding, the self-actualisation or whatever you want to call it, of a callow youth can be boiled down to a specific incident, one watershed moment wherein the ineptitude of adolescence is decisively erased and replaced by hard won wisdom. More often than not, these events occur during hot, picturesque summers, and become the decisive moment in what makes a girl a woman or a boy a man. The coming of age drama is, of course, a load of old hooey because it proposes to configure psychological adult development to an easy fix; a bogus perception which has more in common with the demands of Todorovian narrative structures than the life time’s work of true enlightenment (or perhaps I am just bitter because I am still waiting for my One Big Moment of illumination - hahaha!).

to the stars review

Advertised as a coming of age drama, director Martha Stephens and writer Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s rather lovely To the Stars has all the hallmarks of genre: an outsider kid (Iris - Kara Hayward) has a hard time in Small Town USA, until she forges a friendship with an exotic newcomer (Maggie - Liana Liberato) and a summer of dangerous and exciting experience ensues.

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Set in a 1960s Oklahoma which is so culturally backwards it might as well take place within the previous decade, Iris lives in a C2 button-downed home with a dipsomaniac mother and a tight lipped, conservative father. Poor Iris is nervous to the extent that she periodically wets herself, despite being in her mid-teens. Of course, every other kid is aware of this, and literally rip further piss out of her with daily mockings. Nonetheless, a saviour arrives in the form of Maggie; an ostensibly sophisticated girl from the city, who is pretty, confident and has a dad who "photographs the celebrities for Time magazine" (her father is played by Buster from Arrested Development - Tony Hale - always good to see him). She takes Iris under her wing by braining some lads who are giving Iris shit by throwing rocks at them and goes on to wilfully ignore the entreaties from this film’s version of The Plastics to join their elitist little gang, to boot.

to the stars review

You can almost smell the southern dust, and feel its baking warmth here, as To the Stars' invocation of a time and a place is sumptuous; the sort of film that you could curl up in, if it wasn’t for the repressive attitudes and hard held ignorance bandied about, that is… Can our girls beat the townies at their own game? There are the de-riguer sequences, such as Maggie giving a Iris a make-over which validates her in the eyes of her peers (a small gripe - like Chloe Grace Moretz in the Carrie remake, Hayward doesn’t really look like someone who would be picked on in school, with or without a make-over). And it seems as if Iris might overcome her shyness to pursue a relationship with the cute farm boy who works for her parents.

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Except things are not so neat and simple. It transpires that Maggie is not as worldly as she projects, and her tall tales of glamour are concocted to hide some personal repressions of her own. The school dance - normally the cathartic climax of the coming of age drama - occurs midway through this film and is a muted affair, with Iris and Maggie sat at the side of the hall as your regular wallflowers. Iris’s mum drunkenly attempts to get off with the cute farm boy in a manner that is more scary and desperate than a Mrs. Robinson style seduction. And the attractive lady who runs the beauticians pretends that the picture of her dead brother on the wall of her shop is her husband in order to disguise her sexuality.

to the stars review

Does the final act of To the Stars hurt all the more because of its rational subversion of coming-of-age arcs? There are certainly no simple fixes afforded to either of the girls. Although at times To the Stars is as clumsy as its awkward protagonist, especially with some ungainly expository dialogue at the start ("Just cos your mother drowned doesn’t mean you have to be scared of any woman you meet," Iris’ mum shouts at the farm boy, giving us his background and at the same time bluntly setting up the Ophelia properties of the nearby lake…). But ultimately, To the Stars is a film which is impossible to dislike. The main actors are fantastic and likeable (so much so that writing this I sort of miss their characters!), and their story is by turns both familiar and surprising, leaving us with the sense that the narrative experiences of To the Stars are part and parcel of an unseen, larger bildungsroman.

To the Stars is on UK Digital from June 1st.

2020 movie reviews