Rural Oklahmon life circa 1960 is tough for two teenage misfits played by Kara Hayward as the outcast and Liana Liberto as the customs-defying new girl in town in this B&W coming-of-age drama (also starring Tony Hale & Malin Akerman) that is retro in all the right ways.
2018 was a great year for black and white features – Roma, Cold War and the under seen 1985; To the Stars, the fourth feature by director Martha Stephens, starts off 2019 with a B&W bang! Set in 1960s Oklahoma (and filmed on location), Stephens has casted a wonderful atmospheric period piece that in many ways its own – the world it conjures up is a woman’s world, not a world that women created or rule, but one in which their longings, dissatisfactions and sorrows are center stage and the men and boys of the film are on the periphery looking in.
What drives the movie is a life-changing friendship between a local pariah, played by Moonrise Kingdom‘s breakout Karay Hayward, and a brash newcomer (a captivating and strong lead debut by Liana Liberato). Written by Shannon Bradley-Colleary, the screenplay tends to veer between the incisive and overwritten while Stephens’ direction seems to lapse into consciousness. But her direction has undeniable emotional pull that fuses an overcooked sensibility with the lyrical yearning of DP Andrew Reed’s B&W shots, Heather McIntosh’s beautifully rich score and a refreshing selection of obscure period songs.
The film opens with a couple of housewives smoking and gossiping in the kitchen of the Deerborne residence. One of them, Francie Deerborne (an entertaining Jordana Spiro) is busy making a prom dress for her daughter, Iris (Hayward) who has no particular interest in attending. Her worries over Iris are closer to undermining than affection and they don’t stop her at all from making a move on Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann), the sweetest/kindest boy in town, who also works for the Deerborne’s and whom Iris has a crush on. The patriarch of the Deerborne family, Hank (Shea Whigham, in one of his most simplest roles yet), is mostly busy working the land and is probably the only parent that can offer compassion to his awkward daughter.
Iris is cursed with a weak bladder and she is constantly mocked by people higher than her in the social hierarchy – she is ostracized by the clique of mean girls and is bullied viciously by boys – and while in the midst of all this, she is rescued by the heroic Maggie Richmond (Liberato), a new girl in town. They gradually warm up to each other and become friends. But the secrets they share are only the surface layer of a treasure chest of shame and hidden truths that shake up the story (and the town of Wakita).
A few steps ahead of the audience, Iris senses a bunch of lies in Maggie’s tantalizing tales of her globetrotting photojournalist father. We are introduced to Maggie’s pearl-clutching mother (Malin Akerman) and then we meet Maggie’s dour father, a Tony Hale in an unaccustomed solemn vein. Constant hints that something scandalous about Maggie has constantly made the family move from town to city to town.
The specificity of Maggie’s stories indicate a wordly, searching intelligence to match their gutsiness. In different ways she and Iris are bristling against the girlie expectations of the era: how to look, how to talk, what to want. Whole lifetimes of resentment are around them – at school and in the town’s hair salon. Set in the repurposed rooms of a small house, the salon, a highlight in Jonathan Guggenheim’s production design, acts as the focal point of the story’s theme of women’s sadness. Yet for the suffering and sadness among the women of the film, hope courses through it with the beautiful B&W visuals and in one of the final moments of the film, a simple scene that is unexpectedly powerful between Hayward and Spiro.
At crucial moments, the screenplay spells out far too much in dialogue, a tendency that Stephens indulges in – and a lapse that doesn’t jibe with a narrative that ultimately hinges on the mystery of one character’s fate. Stephens also encourages overplaying from a few of the actors, including Hayward, but there’s something powerful going on in Hayward’s performance: at times Iris is mostly gawky, at others extremely mature. It’s a fascinating split. And it’s something that the two teens at the center of the story understand better than anyone around them: the difference between feeling invisible and feeling seen.
“To the Stars” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Category. At press time, the film is yet to find a distributor.
Director: Martha Stephens.
Screenwriter: Shannon Bradley-Colleary.
Music by: Heather McIntosh.
Cinematography: Andrew Reed.
Production: Foton Pictures, Rockhill Studios, Northern Lights Film, Prowess Pictures.
With: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Malin Akerman, Tony Hale, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Lucas Jade Zumann.