To The Stars is a gentle and touching coming of age story. The familiar story is set apart by a strong cast and likable leads. Director Martha Stephens and writer Shannon Bradley-Colleary examine life in rural Oklahoma in the 1960’s, more specifically the life of Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward). Iris is a flower that refuses to bloom, misunderstood by her peers and her mother, she chooses to hide behind her glasses and flowing curly hair. She is made fun of at school by the other girls for her frumpy appearance and called an “undesirable.” On her way to school one day she is being harassed by a group of guys and a boy is getting handsy when a rock hits the head of her aggressor, enter Maggie (Liana Liberato), the free-spirited new girl in town who continues to throw rocks until the boys run away. Maggie seems to be the only one to see the value in Iris and the two strike up a friendship. Maggie is bright eyed and full of stories about what she will do after she graduates. Maggie is a lost soul wanting to burst free. Her secrets are killing her inside as she tries to fit into a society that will not accept her.
Although the table is set to be a cliché ridden high school coming of age story, complete with its own set of mean girls and an ugly duckling makeover, this tale has a maturity and complexity that digs a little deeper than most. Iris is constantly overshadowed by her mother Francie, played to perfection by Jordana Spiro. Her drunken confessions of being able to get any guy she wanted and regrets of getting pregnant and having to settle down have an effect on Iris. Francie is repressed herself and is pushing her needs onto her daughter. Having no confidence and feeling like she would let her mother down by not being pretty enough or dating enough boys, she chooses to retreat into her books. A solo swim at the pond in the middle of the night is the norm when her father (Shea Whigham) has to take away the bottle from her mother and a screaming match ensues.
Once Maggie is able to coax Iris out of her shell and she starts to gain her confidence the movie really finds its identity as well. The story of repressed feminism and sexuality comes into focus, whether it’s a father using a belt or a town using baseball bats, the pain and heartbreak of getting out of that abusive system and coming to terms with your own sexuality can be hard to watch, but although taking place in the 60’s, still shows the reality of our current times. The writing, direction, and cinematography that join together to tell this story are expertly done with a distinct female perspective and voice.
3.5 out of 5