When director Martha Stephens took her fourth feature out on the festival circuit in 2019 (earning a Jury Prize for Best Narrative at the OUT at the Movies International LGBT Film Fest along the way), it was presented in black and white. It was a fitting choice, given that To the Stars is set in Oklahoma in 1961, during the time of Leave it to Beaver, The Hustler, and JFK. Now that the film is finally getting its wide release, though, Stephens has elected to restore it to full-color—an ultimately prudent decision that she says was guided by her desire to make it more appealing to a wider audience. From her lips…
What To the Stars gives up in the way of monochromatism, it manages to retain in being a perfectly vintage film, punctuated by splashes of color and wonderfully vibrant panoramas of the American heartland by cinematographer Andrew Reed. Working from a poignant screenplay by first-timer Shannon Bradley-Colleary, Stephens captures not only the spirit of the time but also the land and the people on her way to giving us a sneaky-good film that deserves many more eyes than it will no doubt get.
Moonlight Kingdom’s Kara Hayward stars as Iris Deerborne, a put-upon outsider at Wakita High School, bullied and teased mercilessly for, among other things, sporadic incontinence. Stinky Drawers, they call her, and in a class of only a couple dozen students, there’s nowhere to hide. Particularly cruel is Mean Girl Clarissa (Madisen Beaty) and her gaggle of hangers-on.
When mysterious new girl Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato) moves to town, she befriends Iris, finally providing the outsider with the confidant she’s been missing all her life. All the while, Maggie is harboring a secret or two of her own, and vague comments from her parents—about how they had to move from Kansas City because of her—help to drive the narrative forward and keep a disquieting sense of mystery running through the film.
A handful of notable performances also elevate To the Stars, including Adelaide Clemens as a slightly off-kilter beauty salon owner, Jordana Spiro as Iris’ alcoholic mommy-dearest, and Lucas Jade Zumann as a young farmhand, on whom mother and daughter are both crushing. Tony Hale, Shea Whigham, and Malin Akerman also shine in smaller roles. It’s Hayward and Liberato who are the driving forces, though, taking the John-Hughes-in-the-early-60s script and filling it with ample personality and depth.
As for Stephens, she takes her time and lets To the Stars unfold at its own pace, which helps it play like a heartfelt slice-of-life friendship flick in a much simpler (and infinitely more archaic) time. The attention to detail on everything from the bobby socks and saddle shoes to the spot-on soundtrack (The Downbeats, Skeeter Davis, and Darla Hood) to the Pet milk cartons in the school lunchroom gives the film a definitive and absorptive sense of time and place. And by the time we reach the unsettling third-act climax, we’re so imbued in the different world of mid-century Oklahoma that we can’t help but be fully-vested.
A timeless and surprising exposé of emotional suffocation in small-town America, the film will find its way into your heart and mind before you even realize it and then linger long after, as it demonstrates that, despite how it may look, not everything is black-and-white.