By Nick Boyd.
“To the Stars,” a coming-of-age film that takes place in 1960s Oklahoma, is a touching, heartbreaking look at female friendship in the high-school years. Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato) is the new girl in town who takes it upon herself to immediately stick up for Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward), who is an outsider because of her appearance and awkwardness.
Maggie (who is hiding a secret) lies to the gossipy mean girls by saying that her dad (played by Tony Hale) is a photographer for the magazine “Life,” sometimes taking pictures of Marilyn Monroe, when in fact he works for an agriculture magazine and has moved his family to give his daughter a fresh start. She and Iris develop a genuine friendship and connect on a deep, emotional level, sometimes taking late night swims in a pond where their friendship flourishes. Both are nonconformists fighting their own family struggles – Iris with an alcoholic mother and Maggie with a father who beats her.
A classmate of Iris’ named Jeff Owings (Lucas Jade Zumann) works on Iris’ family farm in his spare time and subtly tries to make it known to Iris that he likes her. He is another outsider of sorts who does not seem to have any friends but comes across as likeable, genuine, and someone who cares about Iris.
An interaction at a school dance where Jeff asks Iris if she wants to dance and she hesitates because of how she would come across on the dance floor perfectly captures the insecurities that those like Iris face. When Jeff says to Iris that she is the only person in town who is not a phony (which seems like a reference to the novel “The Catcher in the Rye”), he poignantly makes clear how he admires that she stays true to herself.
Much of the town’s gossip takes place at a beauty salon, run at the home of Hazel Atkins (Adelaide Clemens), a lonely young woman who listens to a lot of what is going on, but we come to learn is a very private person who is trying to conform to the constrained confines of her life.
The movie is an uncompromising sociological portrait of small town fiercely conservative America and the value systems in place. It also zeroes in on the cruelty that goes on in high school and the bigotry that takes hold under rigidly held beliefs.
While not an easy watch at times, the performances are strong and what the characters are experiencing is movingly depicted. The power of female friendship and heartbreak and the tentative steps toward first love are subtly portrayed with characters we come to truly care about.
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