To The Stars review: the Sundance drama arrives in the UK

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Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato and Malin Akerman star in To The Stars, that debuted at the Sundance early this year – here’s our review.

Iris (Kara Hayward) is an outsider. Solitary, bookish and riddled with teenage insecurities, she’s continually picked on in a school that mirrors its small Oklahoma town. She finds comfort in nocturnal trips to the pond on the family farm, floating in the water and gazing at the stars. But she needs a friend. And, in true coming of age style, she finds one in the new girl in town, Maggie (Liana Liberato). She’s the mousy Iris’s opposite in many ways – confident, unafraid of the bullies – and captures the attention of the other girls with stories of her photographer father’s time at Life magazine, where he worked with Marilyn Monroe. But as the two girls grow closer, Iris starts to discover the reality behind that self-assured mask, while also witnessing how the secretive nature of the town turns individuals, and the community, into people she hardly recognises.

The premise of Martha Stephens’ To The Stars is familiar. We’ve been to that small town before in The Last Picture Show, and the beauty parlour where the women congregate and gossip echoes Steel Magnolias. But it’s also a world where parents don’t understand and where life is fine as long as you toe the line. The director’s approach to her story results in an absorbing film with compelling characters and a distinctive visual style. When the film premiered at Sundance, it was shown in black and white: Stephens had decided to shoot monochrome and colour versions, but it’s the latter that now gets a digital release. It creates a landscape that cries out for the big screen, starting with a dust-infused panorama and sun-bleached colours, progressing gradually to richer tones as the story matures.

Iris and Maggie’s friendship and how they learn to be honest with themselves is the heart of the film, with Hayward and Liberato giving memorably sensitive performances. Equally impressive are the supporting cast, including Tony Hale (miles away from the voice of Toy Story 4’s Forky) as Maggie’s abusive father, unexpectedly sympathetic as he struggles with a secret; Jordana Spiro as Iris’s mother, drink constantly in hand, resentful of her lost looks and her daughter; Lauren Ashley Stephenson as one of the girls tormenting Iris, following the crowd and more interested in boys than books.

Where the film falls short is in its inability to take them anywhere other than into typical suburban drama territory. The story, despite its contemporary resonances, feels overly comfortable and lacks an essential freshness. But its beautiful recreation of the early 60s, visual appeal and impressive cast make this a film to seek out. It could so easily slip under the radar and it deserves more.

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