To The Stars, which lit up Sundance last year (in a black and white version, no less), focuses on Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward), a socially awkward and shy teenager living in a small town in 1960’s Oklahoma who has struggled for years to fit in with the crowd at school. While other girls her age are busy talking about fashion, boys, and preparations for Prom, Iris is much more withdrawn with only her studies to keep her company. With neighbours and friends a stone’s throw away and the usual close-knit community vibe flowing through the dusty trails, people’s backs go up when a new family comes to town: the Richmonds, led by father Gerald (Tony Hale) and his wife Grace (Malin Akerman), but it’s their oldest daughter – the mature-beyond-her-years Maggie (Liana Liberato) – that soon makes the biggest impact on not just the town but on Iris and her way of life.
Shot through with melancholy and staggering authenticity, Martha Stephens’ film is a wonderful snapshot of an old-timey America that given the countless social, racial and economical problems circling the country at the time of writing, is very welcome even if much of the film’s narrative touches upon much that worries us all right now. Dealing with such subjects is a delicate balancing act but Stephens’ holds the film together wonderfully and presents them in a profound, touching but ultimately realistic way that doesn’t shy away from the fact that the world isn’t always kind.
Helped by Andrew Reed’s beautiful cinematography and Jonathan Guggenheim’s exemplary production design – it really does feel like a different time -, To The Stars is a rich, thoughtful slice of vintage Americana and while it buckles a little in the final third, it still maintains its momentum throughout as it deals with repression, teen angst, feminism, toxic masculinity and the class struggles of its small-town setting.
If that wasn’t enough to get you interested in watching the film – and UK audiences fear not surroundings aren’t key to enjoyment – then Stephens’ two leads, who are both extraordinary, will tip you over the edge. Hayward and Liberato, both slowly making names for themselves after stellar turns in Moonrise Kingdom and To The Bone amongst others, have excelled themselves here with two mature, touching, and really quite profound performances.
Both have to utilise similar skills to bring Iris and Maggie to life but such are their delicate, intimate portrayals that you are hooked on them both – together and apart – and you only wish you could spend more time with them. Hale plays against type well alongside Akerman and Luis Jade Zumann (20th Century Women) whilst Jordana Spiro, so brilliant in Ozark, is just as so here in a terrific ensemble.
There’s a real charm and innocence to To The Stars that feels like a warm blanket of a film, there for you when things get chilly but also providing some comfort in the face of adversity, much needed in a world that is slowly imploding in on itself that seems to be ever-changing for better or worse. A wonderful – and surprise – treat.
Drama | USA, 2019 | 15 | Digital Download | 1st June 2020 (UK) | Blue Finch Films | Dir.Martha Stephens | Kara Hayward, Jordana Spiro, Tina Parker, Liana Liberato, Shea Wigham, Malin Akerman