Thursday, 4 June 2020

TO THE STARS review

Set in a small Oklahoma town in the 1960s, To The Stars follows the life of innocent Iris (Kara Hayward) and the outspoken Maggie (Liana Liberato), as a shy young woman and her new classmate who teaches her how to stand up for herself against the bullies at school and the attitudes of the local townsfolk.



Hayward is best known for her starring role as runaway Suzy in Wes Anderson's sweet early teen romance Moonrise Kingdom, thereby gaining instant indie cred for life. Here she stars as Iris, a quiet wallflower who has a medical problem that makes her the butt of jokes by the other girls in her class, calling her "stinky draws" and excluding her from their group. Things start to change for her on the arrival of the new girl in town, Maggie. A rebellious spirit who has been moved away from the bad influences of the city by her parents (Malin Akerman and Tony Hale), she sees something special in Iris that she wants to bring out, so sets about becoming her friend.

The high school is populated by obnoxious boys and gossipy girls, like local prima-donna Clarissa (Madisen Beaty) and her hangers-on fitting into a stereotypical mean girl mould, warning Maggie that "being seen with Iris Dearborne is social suicide". With the situation at home not much better, Iris seeks solitude at a local pond where she can be alone and look at the stars as she swims, although this place is tinged with tragedy as the place where the mother of local farmhand Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann) recently killed herself. It's also here where Iris gets to know Maggie proper, as they both seek an escape from their unhealthy home lives. Iris is able to see through the tall tales Maggie has told the other girls in their class (that her father is a photographer for Life Magazine and she has a career as an air hostess lined up after graduation) and form a genuine bond with her, although she does not know why Maggie is reluctant to reveal too much about her past. Maggie, ever the instigator of bad behaviour, decides to give Iris the confidence she needs to stand up for herself by making her skip school so they can go to the movies and the local hair salon ran by war widow Hazel (Adelaide Clemens).

To The Stars has plenty of points worth recommending, not least the admirable attention to detail in getting the look and feel of the era spot on and bringing this world to life. The hairstyles, the costuming and even the cars are all gorgeous to look at, with the sleepy, dusty Oklahoma backdrop make this a lovely world to inhabit for 100 minutes or so. The costuming and restrained attitudes remind of a similar 1960s set film, Mermaids, although there's a world of difference between Winona Ryder's inner monologue spouting, boy obsessed Charlotte and the main character here. As the shy, sweet Iris, Kara Hayward puts in a decent performance with the role she has, but aside from displaying enough personal growth to brave the school dance and talk to Jeff, there's not a lot of depth shown in Iris, leaving her still much of a mystery that you might question if it's worth solving.

However, this is made up for in Liana Liberato's Maggie, who without a doubt steals the audiences attention at every turn. A troubled but spirited girl with a secretive past and a strict disciplinarian father (if you only know Tony Hale from his often goofy role as Arrested Development's Buster, prepare for your view of him to change), the reasons for the upheaval of her family aren't revealed to us or the townsfolk until later into the film, but once they are they set in motion events that give the film its weightiest drama and an opportunity for Maggie to stand her ground. Sadly, it's here that To The Stars reveals its biggest flaw in its inability to balance the stories of its two leads. Whereas Iris is the focus of the film with her delicate, often sweet coming of age story and her burgeoning romance with Jeff, it's Maggie who has the most intriguing storyline by a long shot. The majority of this does happen quite late into the film, but after one particularly tense scene involving Hazel's hair salon and a number of the local men, the focus shifts back onto Iris, leaving plot threads frustratingly open ended. This is also true of a number of the supporting cast members, including Malin Akerman as Maggie's mother and the always dependable Shea Whigham as Iris's father. Both have active involvement in their children's lives, but inexplicably disappear in the last act to who knows where.

Despite some misgivings about the finale and the under-explored potential of some of the plot threads, there is enough charm in To The Stars to please audiences looking for a sweet natured tale of teenage friendship. The relationship between Iris and Maggie rings true, and the efforts made to recreate the era elevate the nostalgic appeal of this slice of small town Americana. Hayward shows promise but after this and Moonrise Kingdom is in need of a role that allows her to be more than the indie-girl ingenue. Liberato, however, impresses throughout, and announces herself as one to watch. She's sure to be a star of the future.

Verdict
2.5/5

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