I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
When is a spoiler not a spoiler? When, as is the case with historical melodrama To the Stars, the thing that is whipped up into a matter of mystery and suspense is nothing that should ever be treated this way. You may not even realize it has been a matter of mystery and suspense until the film offers up its big reveal in a benighted twist, at which point you’re just cringing on the movie’s behalf, that it thought this was a good idea.
Stars is extra awful in this regard because how it organizes its plot ensures that there is no meaningful exploration of one of its central characters; instead, it unforgivably reduces her to a cog in someone else’s tale. What could have been a powerful instance of much-needed representation instead becomes a diminishment and a minimizing of an already neglected kind of story. The very audience that might be drawn to seeing itself onscreen may well be horrified at what it encounters herein.
I’ll tell you when I’m about to spoil Stars’s secret, so you can turn away if you like. Though you may even guess it before I get there, as I did watching the movie.
First-time screenwriter Shannon Bradley-Colleary piles on the misery for teen Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward: Us, Isle of Dogs), who is just trying to keep her head down and make it through high school in 1961 rural Oklahoma. But being a nerdy, science-fiction-reading misfit among the catty-cheerleader crowd isn’t enough: she also has to contend with a weak bladder leading to embarrassing bathroom accidents that have landed her with a horrible nickname the whole school seems to know. Plus Iris’s mom (Jordana Spiro: The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, Must Love Dogs) is a drunk who is openly ashamed by her oddball daughter.
But then an exciting new girl arrives from sophisticated Kansas City. Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato: If I Stay, Trust) is pretty obviously lying about herself and the work her dad (Tony Hale: The Angry Birds Movie 2, Toy Story 4) does to big herself up, or perhaps to cover up — if only in her own mind — the uncomfortable reason her family has moved to town. We don’t know for a while what that might be, but we get a few hints that it’s nothing a respectable white-bread midcentury American family would want to admit to. Anyway, Maggie clearly feels an empathy with outcast Iris, and the two girls become fast friends.
For about about 80 minutes, To the Stars is a passingly diverting coming-of-age drama: a bit overcooked, but with nice performances from Hayward and Liberato and elegant direction by Martha Stephens that takes good advantage of wide-open prairie spaces to amplify Iris’s loneliness. (Apparently this movie was presented at some festivals in black-and-white, which might have been even more visually interesting. It’s in color for its VOD release.) And it’s about eccentric teen girls pushing back against stifling conformity, which we don’t get enough of in the movies. True, the title makes little sense. I thought maybe geeky Iris was going to turn out to be harboring hopes of applying to join the Mercury 13 lady astronauts or something, but no such luck. We actually learn nothing at all about either girl’s dreams for her life beyond making it past prom. Still…
And then it all goes to shit. After here is where I explain why.
Maggie, it transpires, is a lesbian, and her family had to move to escape nasty gossip and start over someplace where no one knows this. Maggie’s sexuality is not in itself a bad thing, of course, but by keeping it a secret and treating it like something shocking to be revealed as a plot complication, To the Stars is buying into the smallmindedness that it is supposedly pushing back against. I suspect Bradley-Colleary and Stephens may think they are holding up anti-gay outrage as ridiculous with the way Maggie’s secret is learned by the town, but its over-the-top quality doesn’t sit well next to the more grounded sentiment of the rest of the movie.
Much worse, by refusing to deal with Maggie on her own terms, her troubles are pushed off to a remove that does not let us fully engage with her struggle, and treats her life as pure tragedy. Worst of all is how it renders Maggie as a manic pixie queer girl whose sole purpose in the movie is to aid Iris on her own journey toward confident young-womanhood and the claiming of her own (hetero) sexuality.
To the Stars has appeared at several LGBT-themed festivals, and the PR materials I received include a statement from director Stephens that openly references Maggie’s sexuality. Yet the marketing for the film now hides this aspect of it. The mixed-messaging isn’t subtle, but it is pretty offensive. As desperate as I am for movies about girls like weirdo girls such as Iris, whose unconventionality isn’t about her sexuality — being gay isn’t the only way a girl or woman can be nonconformist — there are even fewer movies about teen lesbians. But tragic lesbianism as a path by which a straight girl can find herself? Oh no. None of us need movies like this one.
To the Stars is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for April 24th. I could not endorse it, but for a counterpoint to my review, read the comments from other AWFJ members on why the film deserves this honor.