A-line skirts, jukebox tunes, and diner milkshakes. The 1960s, especially the 1960s Oklahoma of the film “To the Stars,” were simpler times. But beneath the face powder lay unrest, and a hunger for an alternative. In the Dust Bowl midwest of Martha Stephens’ gentle and lovely film, life beyond the edges of the prairie is some made-up dream thing. Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation” come to mind. But so do John Hughes, and Peter Bogdanovich’s Larry McMurtry adaptation “The Last Picture Show.”
Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward of “Moonrise Kingdom”) is the lonely kid in high school, usually picked on for her dark glasses and the apparently well-known fact that she struggles, or struggled, with incontinence. Her father, played by Shea Whigham, is a mild soul, the kind of dad who flips through the pages of the newspaper while in the La-Z-Boy, the TV playing fuzzy cable in the background, can of beer in the armrest.
Her mother Francie (Jordana Spiro; “Ozark” alert!), meanwhile, is another story. If there’s an equivalent to any of the characters from “The Last Picture Show,” Francie is a combination of Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman: brazen, boozy, and wears loneliness like a dress. She’s sloppy and too handsy with the neighbor boy Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann) who cuts their grass, and the sound of clinking ice cubes tend to follow her everywhere.
Iris’ narrow, even tedious life gets an unexpected twist with the arrival of the new girl in town, Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato), who instantly reads as slightly older, wiser, and more mature, wearing her proverbial hair down. But behind the smoke screen of maturity is a darker private life. Her father Gerald (Tony Hale, more against type than ever before) is a documentary filmmaker who’s moved the Richmonds to Oklahoma to create a portrait of small town America, but he’s a physically abusive and angry man, the kind of man who carries abuse on his shoulders down from generation after generation. His wife Grace (Malin Akerman) is a broken doll stunted into submission, but she’s warmly welcomed by the Christian moms in town.
Maggie takes on a nurturing role in Iris’ life, protecting her from the sexist boys at school and pointing out the good ones, which include Jeff. Maggie is the kind of older friend you likely had in high school, whose few years’ more experience you wanted to drink up, and who taught you to do things like drink or ditch school. But there is also a hidden sadness to this person that can’t be cured — revealed when Maggie briefly kisses Iris on the mouth out of confusion. Usually, that person also goes away.
Samuel Goldwyn Films
But Maggie, however, can learn a thing or two from Iris, who shows her that she doesn’t have to be such an adult all the time just because she’s always been around them, and also because Maggie unfortunately had to wise up all too early to avert her father’s beatings. Iris and Maggie share a sweet bond akin to an endless summer, and the air of melancholy hanging over what we know to be its impermanence firmly registers this movie in the world of “The Last Picture Show,” as is clearly intended.
Written Shannon Bradley-Colleary, “To the Stars” is a dream place fleshed out with real world details by production designer Jonathan Guggenheim. Even the dusty road on Iris’ walk home seems to stretch for miles, with no end or beginning. Cinematographer Andrew Reed also weaves the dream, making the universe of “To the Stars” look like a frayed photograph out of the past. (Reed shot Aaron Katz’s slick 2017 neo-noir “Gemini,” and crewed on David Gordon Green’s “All the Real Girls,” making his gifts wide and vast.)
The arrival of Maggie into this postcard world becomes the element of chaos that disrupts that dream, eventually turning “To the Stars” into a moving parable of tolerance, and even something of a tearjerker. A pile-up of drama in the third act threatens to tear you out of that dream state in a not ideal way, as the movie was previously content to drift and languish in the wistful Oklahoma air and in the uncomplicated (until it is) friendship between Maggie and Iris.
Still, the movie’s topple into melodramatic excess is fitting for a film set in the 1960s, a time dominated by melodramas. And also like the cinema of the 1960s, there’s a grit and urgency to “To the Stars,” of something bigger and darker coming along with the changing times.
“To the Stars” is available on digital beginning Friday, April 24, and will screen in black and white across virtual cinemas.