The coming-of-age teen drama sub-genre has taken on different forms and changed tones over the years; sometimes they can be light-hearted and kinetic, sometimes they can be sobering and heartfelt. There are many ways to tell this kind of story, and Marta Stephens’ powerfully nuanced indie To the Stars is definitely more the heartfelt kind. Stephens and writer Shannon Bradley-Colleary have crafted a tale where our adolescent protagonists are trapped by the empty, all-consuming landscape of their surroundings, have demons within their own personal lives and are desperate for a hopeful future. This is the tale of both Iris and Maggie, two teenage girls from 60s Wakita, Okla. The former is a socially-awkward outcast who’s shunned by everyone at school and constantly pressured by her alcoholic mother, while the latter is a new girl who’s more outgoing but has demons of her own. Together, they find solace between them, but it’s only a matter of time before that friendship starts to crack.
Both Stephens and Bradley-Colleary do a remarkable job of peeling back the layers of these two young women, making us understand them. That quiet, understated angle in storytelling is mirrored effortlessly by Andrew Reed’s cinematography, and from a purely technical perspective, the depth of field was impressive indeed, even for a studio production. Apparently, there were two versions that were shot: one that had a washed-out colour palette (which was the version this reviewer saw) and one that was completely shot in black and white. One wonders what the monochromatic version would have been like visually, but the washed-out colours of this version perfectly symbolises just how much life and energy has been drained out of these girls’ lives.
However, what makes this film shine are the two young rising actresses that bring the two central characters to life. Having made a big impact in Wes Anderson’s 2012 drama Moonrise Kingdom, Kara Hayward is simply phenomenal, delivering a raw, aching vulnerability and nuance to Iris, an intensity that makes Hayward such a mesmerising, captivating screen presence throughout. Her transformation feels authentically real and you feel for her, even when she’s at her most quiet. Equally matching her in screen presence is co-lead Liana Liberato, who brings a uniquely enigmatic allure to Maggie, a vibrant recklessness that catches your eye immediately, making it easier to understand why Iris would be drawn to her. Throughout, you’re not entirely sure what to make of her, whether or nor she can be trusted or believed, and it’s a testament to Liberato for making Maggie such a complex individual.
Overall, To the Stars is an emotionally-powerful indie drama that accomplishes more with less. It’s a coming-of-age tale about how one true friendship can be enough in the hope of recapturing the optimism and light, even within a downcast world that’s full of adversity. It’s poignant and heartbreaking in a believably human manner, which is helped enormously by its two central performances. While the overly ambiguous ending leaves more questions than it answers, this is a solid film that deserves your attention.
Dir: Marta Stephens
Scr: Shannon Bradley-Colleary
Cast: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Adelaide Clemens, Lucas Jade Zumann, Malin Åkerman, Tony Hale
Prd: Gavin Dorman, Stacy Jorgensen, Erik Rommesmo, Kristin Mann, Laura D. Smith
DOP: Andrew Reed
Music: Heather McIntosh
Country: United States
Run time: 109 minutes
To the Stars is released on Digital Download on 1st June 2020