Review by Sean Boelman
Martha Stephens’s new film To the Stars is undeniably well-intentioned, hoping to be an indictment of hate in small-town America. Yet even though the screenplay by Shannon Bradley-Colleary is entirely original, the movie unfortunately feels like a young adult literary adaptation gone wrong because of its overly maudlin tone and uneven performances.
Set in rural Oklahoma in the 1960s, the film follows a farmer’s daughter and a new girl in town as they form a close friendship as outcasts in their conservative community. This is a pretty straightforward arc, and there’s not a lot of nuance to the story, much less the way in which it was told.
The movie clocks in at nearly an hour and fifty minutes long, and a lot of that time is wasted. It’s a meditative film that really isn’t mediating on anything, and as a result, much of the movie feels unnecessary. The conflict, when it finally comes, is shoved into the third act and feels painfully anticlimactic.
Ultimately, this is little more than a story of love triumphing over hate, and that is a story that has been seen time and time again. Yes, discrimination and toxicity still exist in society today, and that’s a problem that needs to be addressed, but there are films that have done this before in a more effective and emotional way.
If the movie does do one thing very well, it is building the friendship between the two leads. It is very easy to buy into the chemistry between the two girls (though they do seem miscast — it almost would have been better had their roles been flipped), even if the subplots that develop the characters on an individual level are underdeveloped.
The film’s cast is absolutely massive and filled with talented stars who are either out-of-place or underused. Shea Whigham and Malin Akerman both give solid turns, but play the subordinate half of their respective relationships, and as such, don’t get much screen time. Jordana Spiro is completely forgettable in her role. And poor Tony Hale tries his hardest to give a straight-faced turn, but simply isn’t believable as the jerk dad.
That said, the single most questionable thing about the movie is its technical execution. When this film played the festival circuit, it was originally played in black-and-white. Despite Stephens’s obvious attention to aesthetics while shooting the film, the decision to re-colorize in post results in the film looking unintendedly ugly.
To the Stars is one of the biggest wastes of potential of the year so far. It has enough to be watchable, but it doesn’t come from a fresh and unique enough perspective to be of particular significance.
To the Stars hits VOD on April 24.