To the Stars (2019) **** Streaming

May 14th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Martha Stephens | Cast: Kara Hayward, Jordana Spiro, Tina Parker, Shea Whigham | US Drama 101′

Oklahoma is the setting for this retro rites of passage drama that transports us back to Bible Belt country of the 1960s where segregation was still in force, and poverty from the Dust Bowl years not such a distant memory.

In her fourth feature, Stephens soon establishes the film’s East of Eden vibe that blends  with the saccharine cattiness of this female-focused story: Kara Hayward is Iris a repressed and be-spectacled late developer who is taken under the wing of the spunky Liana Liberato (Maggie). The girls’ hopes and dreams are the same, but Liana is more able to express her feelings in God-fearing Wakita where narrow-mindedness contrasts with the wide open spaces, and men and women are at still at odds with each other, unable or unwilling to meet on common ground.

But this flourishing female friendship is the driving force of a drama that soon becomes compelling with its familiar terrain of bitchy schoolgirl hierarchy well sketched out in Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s slightly uneven script that oscillates between poetic and pulpy, Andrew Reed’s faded aesthetic giving the piece a soft-edged nostalgic wholesomeness boosted by Heather McIntosh’s perky score of popular hits.

The 1960s was a time when women where proud to be housewives – as most of the them were – looking after their families, covertly competing for male attention, while pretending to support one another. And this is very much the case for Iris whose mother Francie (Spiro)) is desperate to keep her daughter down, even flirting with her boyfriends. The film opens as the bibulous Francie is finishing off a frothy ballroom dress for Iris, who looks on disdainfully; clearly the two don’t see eye to eye, and we feel for Iris – although her father Hank is much more understanding of his daughter’s timid disposition and urinary incontinence that has made her somewhat of a social pariah.

Iris develops a crush on a local boy Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann) – a solid choice, as it turns out. Most of the boys jeer at her, but Maggie comes to her defence during another early scene that will see them warm to each other in their teenage trauma. And gradually we discover that Maggie’s shiny family is not all it’s cracked up to be either – the two share secrets and lies that will deepen their friendship as much as challenge it.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s father (Tony Hale) is not the soigné character she’s cracked him up to be, and her mother has a haunted look (Malin Akerman) that suggests the move to Wakita came as a result of skeletons in a previous cupboard. Maggie is an urbane, intelligent girl who rapidly outgrows the strictures of her new surroundings. And this brings out the nascent rebel in Iris as the two are forced to accept this petty female environment that cramps their style. Gradually  inspire each other to survive and thrive against the odds in a hopeful human journey where despair is often just below the surface in small town Oklahoma. MT


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