'To the Stars': Film Review | Sundance 2019

By turns pulpy and restrained, with a strong emotional undertow.

Kara Hayward ('Moonrise Kingdom') is the outcast and Liana Liberato the convention-defying new girl in town in a coming-of-age drama that also stars Malin Akerman and Tony Hale.

The 1960s small-town Oklahoma of To the Stars is a place of suffocating wide-open spaces. There's still a heavy whiff of the stifling '50s inside its high school and farmhouses, and Dust Bowl memories cling to the flat roads. With its insular milieu, its secrets and lies, and its teen protagonists aching to be understood, the drama taps into familiar movie territory, a province signposted by such classics as East of Eden and The Last Picture Show. But director Martha Stephens' atmospheric period piece is in many ways its own planet: The world it conjures is a woman's world — not a world that women created or rule, but one where their longings, dissatisfactions and sorrows are center stage, and most of the story's men and boys look on from the periphery, when they're not lashing out.

What drives the tale is a life-changing friendship between a local pariah, played affectingly by Moonrise Kingdom's Kara Hayward, and a brash newcomer (an especially captivating Liana Liberato). The screenplay by Shannon Bradley-Colleary veers between the incisive and the overwritten, and Stephens' direction can lapse into self-consciousness. But the helmer's fourth feature (her last, the Iceland-set Land Ho!, was co-directed with Aaron Katz and also premiered at Sundance) has an undeniable emotional pull, fusing a pulpy, overcooked sensibility with the lyrical yearning of DP Andrew Reed's black-and-white images, Heather McIntosh's rich score and a refreshing selection of obscure period songs.


As the movie opens, a couple of housewives (as they were then called without compunction) smoke and gossip at a kitchen table. One of them, Francie Deerborne (a compelling Jordana Spiro), is busy at work on a froufrou contraption of pastel tulle that she calls a "boycatcher." It's a prom dress for her daughter, Iris (Hayward), who has no particular plans to attend the prom. Francie has undertaken this improvement project with the same poisonous concern that darkens her every exchange with the timid girl. 

Her ostensible worries over Iris are closer to undermining than affection, and they don't stop her from making a move on Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann, of 20th Century Women), the sweetest, kindest boy in town, and the one who Iris has a crush on. Francie's bitterness and her drinking have become part of the domestic landscape for her husband, Hank (Shea Whigham), who's mostly busy working the land. Yet however unwilling or ill-equipped he is to face the ugly realities of his household head-on, Hank at least offers morsels of compassion to his painfully awkward daughter.

Iris, who often looks shell-shocked behind her oversize glasses, is cursed with a weak bladder, and the condition's impossible-to-hide effects have made her an untouchable in the social hierarchy of the town's teens, ostracized by the clique of mean girls and bullied viciously by the boys. In the midst of being harassed by a carload of tormenters, she's rescued by the heroic (and accurate) rock-throwing of Maggie Richmond (Liberato), a new girl who arrives in landlocked Wakita like a blast of clean ocean air. Not used to sharing her time or space — and especially not the haunted-by-suicide pond that has become her personal refuge — Iris gradually warms to Maggie's openness. But the secrets they share are only the surface layer of shame and hidden truths that the story will plumb. 

A few steps ahead of the audience, Iris senses a bunch of lies in Maggie's tantalizing tales of her globetrotting photojournalist dad. Then Stephens introduces Maggie's pearl-clutching mother (an underused but vivid Malin Akerman), and it's clear that she's far too conventional to be the spouse of the artist Maggie has described. Twenty minutes in, the movie cracks open with a disturbing Richmond family dinner scene, capped by the earnest prayers of Maggie's dour father. Played by Tony Hale in an unaccustomed solemn vein, he's no open-minded world traveler. Hints mount that something scandalous about Maggie has occasioned the family's move to Wakita, a scandal that fuels the anguished vigilance of her mother and the punishing anger of her father.

The specificity of Maggie's stories indicate a worldly, searching intelligence to match her gutsiness, a combo that has no place among narrowly defined lives. In different ways she and Iris are bristling against the girlie expectations of the era: how to look, how to behave, what to want. Whole lifetimes of resentment play out around them, at school and in the town's hair salon. Set in the repurposed rooms of a small house, the salon is the highlight of Jonathan Guggenheim's understated production design, and the focal point for the story's ever-deepening theme of women's sadness, whether it's sublimated or, as with Iris and Maggie's schoolmates, channeled into sniping pettiness before it can even take shape. The beautician who quietly oversees the mean-spirited Greek chorus is gentle, sad-eyed Hazel (a low-key, exquisitely graceful turn by Adelaide Clemens, of Rectify), whose own carefully guarded secrets will be exposed in calamitous fashion.

Maggie is no mere engine of awakening for Iris, though she's certainly a catalyst. Even a day of playing hooky that she spearheads has purpose and ramifications beyond the chance to see a matinee of The Magnificent Seven or get department-store makeovers. In Liberato's superb performance, Maggie's exuberance always feels one tightly held breath away from a crushing despair. 

And yet for all the suffering and lashing out among the women in the story, hope courses through the film. It's expressed with unexpected power in one of the final moments, a simple scene beautifully played by Hayward and Spiro. And in the feature's black-and-white visuals, Stephens and Reed favor brightness rather than shadows — accentuating sparks of luminescence even in night scenes, and even in the watery gloom of the pond where Iris floats alone, in her pajamas, a self-baptism beneath the stars. 

At crucial moments Bradley-Colleary's screenplay spells out far too much in dialogue, a tendency that Stephens indulges in a way that can feel belabored — and a lapse that doesn't jibe with a narrative that ultimately hinges on the mystery of one character's fate. The director also encourages overplaying from a few of the actors, including, occasionally, Hayward. But there's also something powerful going on in Hayward's performance: At times Iris is utterly, irretrievably gawky, at others breathtakingly mature. It's a fascinating split, recalling the indelible public-private divide in the title character of The Heiress. It's something that the two teens at the center of the drama understand better than anyone around them: the difference between feeling invisible and feeling seen. 

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Foton Pictures, Rockhill Studios, Northern Lights Films, Prowess Pictures
Cast: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Malin Akerman, Tony Hale, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Lucas Jade Zumann, Adelaide Clemens, Madisen Beaty, Tina Parker, Farah White, Sophi Bairley, Lauren Ashley Stephenson, Kylie Cox, Sydney Cox
Director: Martha Stephens
Screenwriter: Shannon Bradley-Colleary
Producers: Kristin Mann, Laura D. Smith
Executive producers: Kerri Elder, Blake Elder, 
Karen SchlossmanJeff Schlossman, Kevin Christianson, Joe Christianson, Bill Wallwork, Carlos Cusco, Emerson Machtus, Natalia Busquets
Director of photography: Andrew Reed
Production designer: Jonathan Guggenheim
Costume designer: Kiersten Hargroder
Editor: Nathan Whiteside
Composer: Heather McIntosh
Sales: CAA

112 minutes