Reclusive teen Iris Deerborne (Moonrise Kingdom’s Kara Hayward) wouldn’t say boo to a goose, if indeed one ever bothered to fly down to her family home in the vast countryside of 1960s Oklahoma, where director Martha Stephens’s coming-of-age drama, To The Stars, takes place.
Iris is a loner. Bullied by her classmates and borderline mute, her prospects of finding happiness or someone who understands her seem limited. At least until the mysterious Maggie (Liana Liberato) moves into town. The polar opposite to Iris in most ways, Maggie is adept at shutting up the high school clique and happy to throw rocks at the menacing boys. She insists on taking Iris under her wing, even as she struggles to keep her own life in order.
In a nutshell, To The Stars plays like an old-fashioned Mean Girls without the laughs. There are hints of Grease, Carrie and the film owes a clear debt to the classic Hollywood romcoms of the early ’60s. It checks off clichés one by one, seemingly just to get them out of the way and, on some occasions, smartly subverts them.
Iris’ parents for example, seem like a teenager’s nightmare – highly-strung dad Hank (Shea Whigham) is silent and serious, ordering Iris’ housewife mother Francie (Jordana Spiro) around with menace. Yet, in one of the most touching moments, Hank’s heart melts as he sees his daughter blossom for the first time – while her mother looks on in disgust. Turns out he’s not the bad guy here, and the movie takes its time to develop each character in surprising ways.
These are welcome twists in an often rote genre – and this is an unexpectedly confident work given that the team behind it is relatively inexperienced. Indie filmmaker Stephens, who takes charge on her own for the third time here, makes clever use of Oklahoma’s windswept, sparsely populated landscapes to hammer home exactly how lonely these people are. Elsewhere, debutant writer Shannon Bradley-Colleary crafts rich characters from a lively script. Be it the spoilt bullies or the salon-owning widow who harbours secrets of her own, every person we meet in To The Stars has their own well-worked backstory. This isn’t all about Iris – far from it. It’s not about the cruel teens who torment her in school either. Nobody seems to live happily in this small rural town, and the film spends most of its energy investigating why.
Along the way, we meet some interesting side-characters: Jordana Spiro, fresh out of Netflix’s Ozark, plays Iris’s mother as a big ball of regret, while Tony Hale (Arrested Development) goes against type as Maggie’s god-fearing father, not scared of using his belt on a child. Indeed, the strength of the screenplay appears to have attracted more than a smattering of familiar faces, yet it’s Hayward as Iris and Liberato as Maggie who shine brightest against the gloomy dustbowl backdrops. Liberato, in particular, impresses, providing an impressive, engaging balance between self-assured schoolgirl and vulnerable teen, whose own journey is even more complex than Iris’.
The plot does ultimately come back around to its main protagonist, but by the time her arc is complete, there’s a sense that it’s the supporting cast of characters that make To The Stars more than just another mechanical teen movie.
- Director: Martha Stephens
- Starring: Kara Hayward, Jordana Spiro, Liana Liberato
- Release date: June 1 (VOD)