Filmmakers have been gazing up at the sky for almost as long as we’ve had cameras, capturing glimpses at the infinite possibilities, freezing frames that feel somehow more manageable. We search, up there, for answers. We dream of escaping our problems, our mundane realities. We imagine ourselves as … stars in another setting.
Early in To the Stars, from director Martha Stephens and writer Shannon Bradley-Colleary, there’s a haunting juxtaposition, a scene where Iris Dearborne (Kara Hayward) floats on her back in a creak with her eyes open wide, taking in the night sky, and it feels like, for the first time, we’re seeing something new and potentially even more terrifying about how small and fragile humanity really is, because despite the fact that the creak bed is not some expansive body of water, it renders this young woman alone and tiny, drifting along down here while her vision is charting a course in the vastness of that even darker realm above. We don’t know anything about Iris yet, not even her name, and yet, we get a hint of how she feels. It’s quite an introduction.
The world and setting around Iris reinforces the harsh truth of her reality. Outside the water, in broad daylight, she’s an awkward teenager in Oklahoma in the 1960s, the daughter of a farmer (Shea Whigham) struggling to make ends meet and a mother (Jordana Spiro) who, at one time, was likely the darling of the town, the prettiest girl expecting to graduate to a happily-ever-after. Tensions stew and simmer away in their home. Friction between mother and daughter. Questions about the father – is he abusive, alcoholic, or something worse?
And as Iris makes her way to school, walking alone along the endless dirt road, she gets accosted by a truckload of boys, name and catcalling her. One boy jumps out, knocks her books out of her arms and grinds on her from behind. That is, until rocks begin whizzing at his head and the windshield of the truck.
Iris’s heroic savior emerges, in the form of Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato), a new girl in town, from the city, with her own car and stories about her father (Tony Hale) who is a photographer for Life magazine, relocated to this farming community to detail life on the margins, searching for the beauty in vast emptiness of the fields. Maggie’s situation, on the surface, appears different than that of Iris, until we learn that she’s creating a clever fiction of her family and who she really is, in large part, because like Iris, she’s searching too.
Soon, they both wind up in the creak, facing the sky, scanning for some reflection up there that will point them in the right direction.
It’s not long before parallels come into focus. Maggie’s mother Grace (Malin Akerman) is also an upscale woman with a slightly softer edge than Iris’s mother. She’s obviously had the chance to experience life in a different setting with a degree of success, which has made her more worldly and self-assured, but that hasn’t transferred down to Maggie completely. Maggie has more to figure out and the move to the farmland, away from the temptations of the city were supposed to help.
Audiences today will immediately hone in on the red state/blue state divide, which is certainly clean and clear cut. For women, whether young or older, the idea of these open landscapes feel like prisons, with roles as cells. Wives, mothers, good girls, bad girls, homecoming queens, and girls-in-waiting. There were only so many paths for girls to become women and don’t you dare step off the trail.
To the Stars zeroes in on this dynamic struggle, offering an intimate take on the coming-of-age experiences of Iris and Maggie. Gradually, Iris grows into a Carrie-like character (minus the supernatural powers of Stephen King’s protagonist), overcoming the oppressive restrictions of her mother, gaining independence and strength, not only from her engagement with Maggie (where she learns to be more self-confident without taking on Maggie’s more negative tendencies) but also from her father who turns out to be a subtle and loving figure.
Maggie’s journey is far more complicated. As the wandering new girl, she flits between her quieter moments with Iris, full of warmth and possibility, and the allure of the popular girls in school (and the stereotypical good times with boys in cars and the fictions of settling down). Her parents, as hard as they try, can’t help her find a role and identity that matches who she is, so we see that she’s destined to drift longer in the creak and amongst the stars in the sky.
Whereas everyone in the narrative judges each young woman and sentences them based on the mores of the times, Iris and Maggie, for the most part, provide shelter for each other. When it matters most, neither of them seeks to cast judgment on the other. That same open-hearted approach comes from the writer and director as well. Stephens and Bradley-Colleary could easily have muddied the waters here with more issues and potentially condemnation (all in the service of making the story more contemporary), but scaling down to just these two young women and their attempts to move forward on their own terms, meant trusting that their stories would be enough. And they are. They are just one set of blinking lights out there to focus on. (On Digital April 24, 2020)