Martha Stephens’ beautiful and sensitive, if very familiar drama To the Stars arrives a year after its successful Sundance debut. While its story of a bookish young woman’s liberation from stifling small-town conservative values is one we’ve seen many times before, that it still rings true for today says a lot about the material’s strength in capturing the enduring nature of intolerance and sexual repression of women. A curious aesthetic change and some overheated plotting don’t detract from two showcase performances by leads Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato.
To the Stars is set in 1960s Oklahoma, the heart of the bible belt, where mousy, quiet Iris Deerborne endures a life of being invisible. Well, that’s when she’s not being bullied by the local boys, all a bunch of moronic sex-crazed oafs; or harassed by a clique of mean girls over her embarrassing bladder problem. Even at home, Iris is met with derision by her unhappy, alcoholic mother Francie (Jordana Spiro), while her father (Shea Whigham) just wants peace and quiet.
Being the outcast in a small, gossipy town isn’t easy, but Iris finds herself drawn to the beautiful, mysterious free-spirit Maggie Richmond (Liberato). A city girl with a big, boastful personality, Maggie doesn’t mind spreading a few white lies to shake people up, like suggesting her father is a photographer for Life Magazine. But Maggie’s lies hide the real reason why she and her abusive family (with Tony Hale and Malin Akerman as her parents) uprooted themselves to get a “fresh start.”
Neither Iris or Maggie subscribe to traditional notions of what a woman is supposed to be. They don’t fit in with the popular girls and they don’t chase around the boys. While Iris kept this side of herself hidden under nerdy isolation, it’s Maggie who brings it roaring to life. Interestingly, this only upsets Iris’ mother further, as she deals with sexual repression of her own. Francie openly lusts after a local neighbor kid (one who Iris has her eye on), but it’s also clear she sees Iris’ hidden beauty as a reminder of the youth she has lost.
I remember seeing footage of To the Stars in its original black & white, and thinking it held such a haunting, even timeless quality as a result. So it’s disappointing to see it arrive now in full-color, which makes it look like every other coming-of-age film out there. That said, there’s still a great deal of beauty crafted by Stephens and cinematographer Andrew Reed. The vastness and picturesque nature of the American heartland strikes a feeling of tremendous potential and possibility. It’s when they’re outdoors, in those wide open spaces, when these women most come alive. Reed’s camera chokes that off in the claustrophobic home scenes, mirroring the freedom too many females were long denied.
A steadier hand could’ve been used down the stretch, as Stephens and screenwriter Shannon Bradley-Colleary bang their messaging pretty hard. It’s tough to ignore Iris’ formulaic evolution (a makeover!!) and the inevitable conflicts that arise with Maggie. The same goes for the town’s bigotry towards those who challenge their traditional homespun values, eventually expressing itself in violence and rage that comes too late to be properly dealt with.
To the Stars arrives weeks after the release of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a film it shares common bond with, despite taking place in different eras. The fear of feminine power is what leads to the restrictive laws women still must deal with today. It just goes to show that, despite all of the intellectual advancements in our culture, we still have a lot left to learn. There’s a lot more To the Stars could’ve said, more that could’ve been done, if Stephens had taken the time to dig a little bit further and break away from the genre’s shackles.