‘To the Stars’
Playing in the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 111 minutes. Next screenings: Sunday, Jan. 27, 12:15 p.m., Grand Theatre, Salt Lake City; Friday, Feb. 1, 12:15 p.m., Eccles Theatre, Park City; Saturday, Feb. 2, 11:30 a.m., Prospector Square Theatre, Park City.
Tenderly rendered but with a powerful impact, director Martha Stephens’ coming-of-age drama “To the Stars” is a luminous tale of teen girls discovering themselves on the harsh prairies of Oklahoma.
Set in the 1960s and shot in black-and-white, the story begins with Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward), a mousy teen who is bullied and teased in her rural Oklahoma high school, given the nickname “Miss Stinky Drawers” on account of her weak bladder. Being seen with Iris “is social suicide,” the school’s queen bee, Clarissa Dell (Madisen Beaty), declares.
Then a new girl arrives: Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato), who throws rocks at the bullies and regales her new classmates about her exciting former life in Kansas City. Clarissa and her cohort try to bring Maggie into their “Mean Girls” clique, but Maggie is more interested in talking to Iris, because she’s “deep.”
The girls share something else in common: Hard parenting. Iris is doted on by her cattleman father, Hank (Shea Whigham), but is constantly wounded by the cutting insults of her alcoholic mother, Francie (Jordana Spiro). At home, Maggie tries to do right by her flighty mom, Grace (Malin Akerman), and her taciturn dad, Gerald (Tony Hale), who wields a mean belt and warns against a repetition of the behavior that forced the family to move here.
The ensemble cast is fantastic, with Liberato (“To the Bone”) and Hayward (“Moonlight Kingdom”) particularly good as the extrovert and the introvert who bring out new facets in each other.
Stephens (“Land Ho!,” SFF ’14) and screenwriter Shannon Bradley-Colleary craft a quietly moving tale of small-town secrets, playing out at high-school dances, moonlight swims, and in the kitchen beauty salon run run by the sad-eyed Hazel Atkins (Adelaide Clemens). The juxtaposition of sexually awakening teens and their emotionally battered parents on the windswept black-and-white plains is reminiscent of “The Last Picture Show,” and delivers the same punch to the heart.