REVIEW: To the Stars (2019)
The version of To the Stars that is widely available on demand to rent is in colour, but director Martha Stephens’ original vision for the film was in black and white (and a black and white version was shown at Sundance 2019 as well as other festivals).
In an interview with Film School Rejects, Stephens explains: “We wanted to make a black and white film. That’s tricky right now…asking someone to finance a black and white period film. So, our idea was let’s make two versions, and let’s make sure we can have both versions available.”
“Basically, we had to create two films,” says Stephens. “It’s not only [cinematographer] Andrew Reed and his gaffer having to do that, but also our production designer and our costume designer.”
Nothing ever changes in Iris Deerbone’s (Kara Hayward) small town, that is until city girl Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato) arrives. Slowly shy and withdrawn Iris is pulled out of her shell by worldly but reckless Maggie as they forge an unlikely but deep friendship. To the Stars is an unexpected delight. Set in a small town in Oklahoma in 1961, the period setting allows for there to be an insightful look at female friendships and how figuring out who you are is never an easy thing.
Iris is the daughter of a farmer (played by Shea Whigham and while he doesn’t have much screen time, the few scenes he has with Iris are sweet and standout) who doesn’t have much time for her or her mother (Jordana Spiro). Maggie is like a breath of fresh air in the stuffy town. All the popular girls want her to join the cheer squad and her parents are desperate for her to fit in and be normal, but with Iris, Maggie finds a true friend.
The friendship between Iris and Maggie is the heart and soul of To the Stars. Maggie is the inspiration Iris needs in order to be more confident in who she is and stick up for herself, while for Maggie, Iris is someone who can see through her lies and doesn’t judge her for who she is. The other relationships between different female characters are all explored to an extent. There’s Iris’s mother and her friends, the popular girls in school, and the local hairdresser who men are besotted with, but she shows no interest, only appearing to become more open herself around Maggie and Iris.
The popular schoolgirls – led by Clarissa (Madisen Beaty) – sniping at Iris for being different is typical to the coming of age genre, but there are small moments where some girls in the group start to voice how they’re uncomfortable with how Clarissa treats them all. There’s also reason to Iris’s mother’s dismissal of her, though that obviously doesn’t make it OK, and it gives both her mother and Iris more substance as you can understand why she is so reserved until Maggie comes into her life.
When Maggie gives Iris a makeover there is the cliché of the “ugly” girl suddenly becoming beautiful and desirable once she takes off her glasses. It can almost be forgiven however, as the people that have always cared about her or noticed her, like Maggie and farmhand Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann), still do whether Iris looks more “traditionally beautiful” or not.
I often feel the word “beautiful” is banded about a lot when it comes to period dramas or coming of age films that are generally well made, but it’s hard not to use the word a lot when describing To the Stars as it is all of those things. The score composed by Heather McIntosh is full of yearning and compliments the stunning cinematography. The long, deserted road between Iris’s home and the town is a key setting that shows what Iris’s life is like before and after meeting Maggie. Beautiful wide shots highlight how isolated and lonely Iris feels, making great use of the wide-open plains, and slowly that space becomes more populated with different people as Maggie gives Iris a lift to school or they go for drives with other girls.
Every element of To the Stars comes together in a way that makes the dramas of this small town feel true to life and never overly dramatic. Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato both give touching and confident performances and they sell the relationship that drives the narrative forward. To the Stars is a film about friendship, love and the fight to be true to yourself, it may fumble the final act slightly with some wishing for a more concrete ending, but it’s still a mostly hopeful outlook for those who were considered misfits in their small towns.
Directed by: Martha Stephens
Written by: Shannon Bradley-Colleary
Cast:Kara Hayward, Jordana Spiro, Tina Parker