Review: Martha Stephens' Film 'To the Stars' Set in 1960s Oklahoma
by Zofia Wijaszka
April 21, 2020
Living in a small town is hard for a teenager. It's even harder if you live in rural Oklahoma in the 1960s, and you feel different than all of your peers. Director Martha Stephens captures the atmosphere of this small town (and small-minded people) in her period drama To the Stars, which originally premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. While Stephen's production is not an innovative film that bends the standards of cinema, it's certainly an eye-opening coming-of-age story. The drama first premiered at Sundance in black & white, but it was later reverted back to color. I watched the latter version for release (on digital April 24th), and although it was unquestionably satisfying, I'd still love to experience this story in the original format.
When shy outsider teen Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) meets the energetic and bold Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato), both girls' lives change. Because of her shyness and her medical condition, Iris has been bullied all her life. The kids from school call her "Stinky Drawers" and continuously laugh at her. When she faces a presumably dangerous situation, she's saved by Maggie, who just moved to the town. The exceptional bond instantly connects both teenagers. They share intimate moments, darkest secrets, and swim in a pond in the middle of the night. While Iris becomes less and less shy, Maggie struggles with her sexual orientation and endless scrutiny from her father (Tony Hale). In the film, it's impossible to miss that pervasive feeling of suffocation that is often explicitly manifested in small Christian towns during the 60s.
Iris and Maggie develop a close relationship that completes each other. At first, Hayward's character is very reserved and nervous. Yet, Maggie holds an incredible power to open Iris up. They start spending more time together; and as they play hooky, go watch The Magnificent Seven in the cinema, and get hairdos and make-overs at the nearest department store, we watch them discover their true selves and get to experience their blossoming. To the Stars progresses gradually. It almost displays the slow but sure mental development of every young adult in the way Stephens directs. Eventually we finally understand the reason for Maggie's web of lies about her family and the real roots of Iris' condition. In the end, it's not their bond that's crucial but the chance for their growth as separate women.
A pond becomes a special place where they meet in the middle of the night. It's where Maggie and Iris get to know each other. The magic of the night and the moonlight that reveals their deeply hidden secrets creates an atmosphere of inclusion and intimacy. This place is their sacred asylum. It's a very familiar feeling that Stephens builds into To the Stars. All of us had a unique place where we could run to when in trouble or in need of solitude to reflect. It's a symbol of growing up that's very dear to any adult viewer. Iris, and Maggie, discover themselves there. Iris learns how to stand up for herself and speak up. Maggie, on the other hand, finally realizes what it's like to be unconditionally accepted by someone. That feeling she desires is not something she can get from her father or mother (Malin Akerman). As we are in Oklahoma in the 1960s of all places, the town where everyone is a God-fearing Christian, women can't be open with their sexuality. Grace Richmond wants to help her daughter, and it manifests in her expressions and pain that she carries. However, she is helpless against her husband's authority.
The end brings new possibilities. Maggie realizes that she can break from her homophobic father, and Iris finds her voice. The film ties together beautifully as we see Iris walking by the road just as at the beginning of the film when Maggie rescued her. But this time, when she sees the truck and hears names thrown at her, she stands up for herself and responds. She wins this emotional encounter, thanks to Maggie's influence.
Both Kara Hayword and Liana Liberato form a heart-warming, dynamic duo of two evolving young women. When it comes to the themes of the film, it reminds me of Annette Haywood-Carter's film Foxfire starring Angelina Jolie. Though each has entirely different timeframes, both films talk about womanhood, sexuality, and the issues that women face every day, even in contemporary society. To the Stars portrays the struggles of young adults, and though the plot is set in the 20th century, I believe that even a modern adolescent will find the solace in Stephen's picture. It also makes us see the sad truth. It seems that not much has changed yet when it comes to small towns and their small-mindedness. In the end, it all depends on humanity and acceptance to truly make it easier for young people to discover their true self, especially women.
Zofia's Rating: 4 out of 5
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